If ever there was a testament to all that is good in American education, it was Thomas M. Campbell.
Like millions of black southerners only a generation removed from slavery, Campbell faced a bleak future eking out a living as a laborer in the foothills of northeastern Georgia.
He wanted something better in life. His brother was a student at a school in a faraway place with a strange name, Tuskegee, led by a man named Booker T. Washington. As little as he knew about the place, he was certain of one thing: He wanted to be there — desperately.
He was determined to go to this school, even it meant walking all the way. And walk he did — all the way to Tuskegee Institute and into the pages of history.
America’s First Cooperative Extension Agent
Campbell enrolled at the school. And while he had a lot of academic catching up to do, his almost superhuman capacity and passion for hard work and self-improvement earned the respect and admiration of Washington. Immediately after graduation, Washington entrusted him with a job — overseeing the “farmer’s college on wheels,” one of the first in a series of steps that culminated in what later became known Cooperative Extension work.
Campbell’s successful work with the farmer’s college led to his becoming the nation’s first Cooperative Extension agent, winner of the Harmon Award, and one of the most distinguished Extension educators in U.S. history.
I’ve often reflected on how different Cooperative Extension would be today had there not been a Tuskegee Institute to tap into the extraordinary energy and genius of this man.
U.S. Higher Education’s Singular Achievement
More than one pundit has reflected on one of the singular achievements of U.S. higher education: its longstanding emphasis on giving remedial and underachieving students a fighting chance to succeed in life.
The stream of greatness that has flowed through institutions such as Tuskegee University along with the vast network of U.S. land-grant institutions, regional colleges and universities and community colleges testify to the depth of this commitment.
I relate to this on an intimate level, because while I’m by no means great, I was, by every measure of the word, a classic underachiever.
Like so many underachievers, I had spent my high-school years focusing only on those books and activities that interested me — behavior reflected in my lopsided grades and ACT score. My encounter with my local regional university transformed me into something approaching a serious scholar.
I refer to it as an encounter because it took hold of me and transformed me into the person I am today, much as Tuskegee Institute did Thomas Campbell.
A Scottish Lesson
I gained a deeper appreciation for this more recently reading the last chapter of Arthur Herman’s “How the Scots Invented the Modern World.”
Herman writes about how higher education in Scotland grew less egalitarian at roughly the same time that intellectual life in the region began to atrophy. Even as this atrophy set in, Scottish universities, borrowing from their English counterparts, began imposing stricter admission standards.
“University students of thirteen or fourteen were now a thing of the past; the academic body more closely resembled that of other Western universities,” Herman writes.
No longer were 13- and 14-year-old students granted admission to these institutions, even though in earlier years a few teenage students had gone on to become distinguished, if not world-renowned, scholars.
Poor aspiring scholars had a harder time matriculating, too, trapped in what Herman describes as “the mesh of entrance exams.”
There are lessons here for America, a nation that seems more meritocratic — more SAT-obsessed — than ever.
Hasn’t there always been a place in this society for late-bloomers, underachievers and remedial students — students who, for whatever reason, simply didn’t fit traditional molds?
Affirming a Legacy
This brings me back to one of the purposes of my weblog: to affirm the work and legacy of Cooperative Extension.
From the beginning, this informal educational movement has affirmed the traditional value Americans have invested in nontraditional learning and, equally important, in ensuring that the fruits of learning are available to all.
The life of our first Cooperative Extension agent, Thomas M. Campbell, should serve as an enduring reminder that through exposure to the right person, experience or institution, even the poorest, the most disadvantaged, the most underachieving can soar to dizzying heights.