Tag Archives: The Hick Factor

The Return of the Hick Factor and It’s Implications for Extension

Part of our nation’s greatness stems from the fact that it has never erected a high wall of separation between so-called academic and practical knowledge.

Auburn, Clemson, Michigan State, Purdue and Texas A&M universities, all of which started out as agricultural and mechanical institutions but now command topflight rank along with their state-chartered counterparts, are a testament to this longstanding American openness to practical knowledge.

Our British cousins held a similarly high regard for practical knowledge, which perhaps accounts in large measure for why they rose in the 19th century to become the world’s first global economic superpower.

Quoting economic historian Joel Mokyr, New York Times columnist and author David Brooks maintains that Britain’s and later America’s phenomenal economic achievement stemmed from a changed state of mind.

“Because of a series of cultural shifts, technicians started taking scientific knowledge and putting it to practical use.”


To put it another way, Britain and its cultural and political offshoot, the United States, developed a respect, if not passion, for practical knowledge.

Other advanced nations initially did not hold practical knowledge in such high regard, including Germany. Peter Watson, writing in his superb history of intellectual thought, Thought: A History of Ideas from Fire to Freud, described the prevailing disdain for practical knowledge among the educated German upper and middle classes.

Watson cites as a prime example the ambiguous public standing of Max Planck, the physicist who discovered the quantum, the idea that energy comes in small packets, or quanta.

“Despite the fact that his discovery rates as one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time, in Planck’s own family, the humanities were considered a superior form of knowledge to science,” Watson writes. “His cousin, the historian Max Lenz, would jokingly pun that scientists (Naturforsher) were in reality foresters (Naturforster) – or, as he would say, hicks.”

In an earlier piece, I referred to such historical bias against practical knowledge as the “hick factor.”

Ultimately, as Brooks writes, upper-class Britons followed suit, as “the great-great-grandchildren of the empire builders withdrew from commerce, tried to rise above practical knowledge and had more genteel attitudes about how to live.”

It appears that this hick factor, prevalent among 19th century elite Germans and, later, British elites, is gaining a toehold among American in the 21st century – and not just among elites.

“The shift is evident at all levels of society,” Brooks writes. “America’s brightest minds have been abandoning industry and technical enterprise in favor of more prestigious but less productive fields like law, finance, consulting and nonprofit activism.”

That raises a disturbing question: Within this rapidly evolving social context, what are the implications for Cooperative Extension and the land-grant system in general?

These land-grant institutions helped elevate knowledge to a preeminent place not only in the United States but throughout the world.

Through tens of thousands of hours of classroom instruction, applied research on thousand acres of cropland, and countless field tours, this system played an indispensable role generating and purveying much of the practical knowledge on which the modern farming system is based.

Equally important, what role, if any, should Extension and other land-grant institution serve in helping restore industry and technical expertise – practical knowledge – to a preeminent place in American life?