Tag Archives: public intellectuals

Extension’s Critical Need for Public Intellectuals

Anthony Giddens

British sociologist Anthony Giddens, one of many public intellectuals throughout the world adding their perspectives to contemporary issues of the day.

As some you undoubtedly have perceived by now, one of the focuses of this weblog is to underscore the need for our becoming different — to find ways to distinguish ourselves from our competitors, from other knowledge providers.

The thoughts I shared yesterday regarding Extension’s transformation from technological crusader to conciliator take me back to a piece I wrote last year about our acute need to cultivate a national corps of public intellectuals.

Yes, I know, it sounds a bit grandiose, but I’m more convinced than ever of this burning need. Indeed, as I see it, cultivating a committed nationwide corps of articulate, perceptive public intellectuals is a key step in our organizational transformation.  It offers an immense opportunity for creative sedition — acting within our current category while playing beyond stereotype.

What exactly is a public intellectual?  Traditionally speaking, one who deals with ideas and knowledge within the context of public discourse, usually within a mass media context, though with the advent of the Web, this role has evolved somewhat.

We need more of these people, especially within farming.  The transition from the current scientific farming model to one that combines elements of the current model with sustainable practices is destined to be a difficult one.

As I stressed yesterday, grassroots Extension educators have a huge role to fill helping producers undertake this transition — to put it another way, helping conciliate these somewhat conflicting visions. They inevitably will be borrowing a page or two from our horticultural educators, who are already dealing with a similar challenge helping their growers weigh and balance these issues.

However, this issue is playing out within a wider public context too.

Earlier this week, a New York Times digital and pop culture columnist Virginia Heffernan offered a lighthearted account of the 50-year feud between those standpat food traditionalists, commonly known as foodies, and the food techies who eagerly abandoned traditional food preparation techniques for the modern conveniences of life — can openers, microwaves and grocery store rotisseries.

It’s a lighthearted treatment or a comparatively light subject, yes, but this 50-year feud closely resembles what is taking place between the proponents and detractors of the conventional scientific farming practices.  It is a feud ensuing throughout wider avenues of public discourse between those who harbor misgivings about the implications of technology and those who, despite a few misgivings, are largely convinced that technology will lead us to a better ways of living and working.

Issues such as these are screaming to be put into perspective. Who but Extension educators are better equipped to put these issues into context?

Our history has uniquely equipped us for such a task.  We have amassed an impressive record functioning as grassroots scientific vanguards, showing people how to put scientific knowledge to practical use. It’s one of the great strengths of Cooperative Extension, though, to be sure, one that has not been cultivated to its fullest potential.

As our rule evolves from that of technological crusader to that of technological conciliator, the need for this corps of public intellectuals will become even more critical.

To repeat my earlier suggestion, we need to start cultivating the talents of our best scientific educators.  We should nurture their talents and inspire them to become public intellectuals in the fullest measure of that term — people who can identity as well as capitalize on opportunities to educate our diverse audiences about the food-and-fiber issues that lie just ahead of us.

They must learn to become effective social media users, op-ed writers and trained speakers thoroughly equipped to engage clients and stakeholders in a variety of public contexts.

Yes, we need to be cultivating a corps of public intellectuals and promoting them with the same zeal with which Division I universities promote their star athletes.

Our organizational future will depend on them.

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From Crusader to Conciliator: Extension’s Coming Transformation

"Agriculture Move Onward"

"Agriculture Moves Onward." The final mural of the Historical Panorama of Alabama Agriculture and a testament to the boundless faith Americans once invested in the march of scientific/technological progress.

Some 100 years ago, Extension educators were crusaders in the truest contemporary meaning of that word.

We were crusaders for a cause, the cause of scientific/technological progress in farming and homemaking. Extension educators were dispatched to every rural hamlet in America to impart the message of scientific and technological progress.

In manner of speaking, we were techno-crusaders.

Perhaps no other artistic rendering better expresses our techno-crusader role than the final mural of the Historical Panorama of Alabama Agriculture.  Commissioned along with the other murals for display at the 1939 Alabama State Fair, it underscored how adopting scientific and technological practices on the farm would secure a veritable cornucopia of material goods and creature comforts.

This faith in scientific and technological achievement was not confined to Extension educators. Americans in general once possessed an almost boundless faith in science’s potential for securing material comforts and, with it, a generous measure of human happiness.

As a one of my Extension colleagues once noted, Americans as recently as the 1950s routinely passed highway billboards unabashedly proclaiming “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry” without so much as blinking an eye.

Such a message today would invariably be interpreted as a twisted joke.

How times have changed: Extension educators are now struggling to navigate their way across an increasingly steep, jagged divide between techno-skeptics, who harbor a deep mistrust of technology and its long-term implications, and techies, who, despite some misgivings, generally believe that each technological advance ultimately works to secure a better life and world for all of us.

But why should we be surprised by this? Science, after all, is as much a process of refinement as it is of discovery.  With this refinement has come a clearer understanding of the environmental costs associated with scientific and technological progress.  Scientific farming practices have proven to be no exception.

To be sure, we Extension educators should take immense pride in what we have built within the last century.

As one of the world’s premier philosophers of technology, Kevin Kelly, stresses in his recent book, What Technology Wants, the highly mechanized, petrol-dependent farming model we helped construct in the last century has been indispensable in many respects.  It provided the “foundation of leisure” that promoted a drastic increase in population, which, in turn, generated the intellectual insights that define much of the 21st century.

Nevertheless, Kelly is one of a number of techno-pundits who foresee the inevitable rise of a new, more sustainable, possibly even more decentralized, farming model, though one that incorporates many of the scientific and technological attributes of the current model.

In building a new model that incorporates elements of scientific/technological farming and sustainability, the need for Extension educators will be more critical than ever.

Who but Extension is equipped for this task?  Our intimate understanding of the current scientific farming model provides us with one critical insight that many green proponents are now only reluctantly beginning to accept: replacing the prevailing farming model with a wholly sustainable model is not only impractical but impossible given the present state of science.

We have a indispensable role to play in the future not only in bridging a divide between hostile camps but also in helping articulate the elements of this new farming model, piece by piece.

Consequently, we will be called upon to abandon our traditional role of technological crusader and to accept a new role as technological conciliator.

Our new role as conciliator not only will be confined to the farm sector.  There will be an increasing need for public intellectuals within Extension — people equipped to explain to the general public how this new farming model will be expressed and how it ultimately will affect them.

Herein lies an enormous opportunity for Extension — an opportunity for profound organizational transformation.

Future generations of Extension educators may reflect on this chapter of our history as our finest hour.

What Cooperative Extension Sorely Needs: More Public Intellectuals

What has become of America’s scientific vanguard — those people who helped inspire and create a technological civilization that, up to now, at least, has been the envy of the world?

That’s a good question.   As a matter of fact, for Extension educators, it’s not just a good question, it’s a paramount question.  For almost a century, we have comprised a vital component of that vanguard.

Why is this question now so paramount? Because as sound science rapidly loses ground to junk science, Cooperative Extension educators are lining up on what many Americans, however unjustly, consider to be the wrong side of the debate.

You’ve seen it, I’ve seen it — virtually everyone employed in Cooperative Extension work has seen the growing disdain, particularly among many of the nation’s public intellectuals, for any farming method deemed “unnatural,” whether this involves tilling or applying herbicides or insecticides.

Among ordinary Americans, this thinking has taken on an almost conspiratorial hue.  Case in point:  Commenting on my recent online newspaper column on the economic challenges associated with raising free-range chicken, one respondent pointed to a USDA “conspiracy” against small-scale growers —one in which Cooperative Extension purportedly serves an active, conscious agent.

Today, New York Times blogger Tom Kuntz weighed into this increasingly contentious but woefully underreported debate.

Among other prominent figures in this debate, Kuntz cited Missouri farmer Blake Hurst, who has worked on his family farm for more than 30 years.  In response to an Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Hurst summarized the pro-farming side of the debate:

Much of his argument comes down to: beware the law of unintended agricultural consequences. Farming without herbicides means more tilling and more erosion. Let turkeys roam outside and they’re prone to attack by weasels, or drowning by their own upturned beaks in downpours. Freeing massive hogs from confinement crates means they sometimes crush their piglets to death, or eat them right after they’re born.

Anyone associated with commercial agriculture understands this.  Farming functions on the basis of common sense rather on than some malicious intent to defraud consumers. 

Is there still a place for organic food production? Yes, absolutely.  But without these common sense practices, which involve everything from herbicide and pesticide application to livestock vaccination, we would be deprived of a food production and distribution system that enables less than 2 percent of the population to feed the remaining 98 percent with a measure of efficiency and safety than earlier generations would have found mindboggling.

It’s an important, if not vital, point, though one that is increasingly failing to get through to public intellectuals and ordinary Americans like.

And, frankly, I think it implies a lapse, if not an outright failure, on our part.  Communicating these sorts of complex issues in a way that public intellectuals and ordinary people can grasp is a task which could — should — be entrusted to Cooperative Extension educators.

Indeed, from the very beginning, Extension agents and specialists have functioned as scientific vanguards, showing people how to put scientific knowledge to practical use. It’s one of the greatest strengths of Cooperative Extension, though one that has never been cultivated to its fullest potential.  It’s time that it was.

We need more Blake Hursts.

Here is my suggestion: that we start cultivating the talents of our best scientific educators. The most promising of those educators should be developed into nothing less than public intellectuals — people who know how to identify and capitalize on opportunities to advance a public understanding of and appreciation for sound science.

Some of the skills with which they should be equipped: how to develop and write effective blogs; how to formulate and write op-eds; and how to communicate in a manner that not only is readily grasped but that also serves as an impetus for action.

We must create a vanguard of public intellectuals capable of serving at the state and national levels. And we should cultivate and promote them in the same manner with the Division I universities do star athletes.