Tag Archives: The Winnowing Oar

Post-Morrill America — and What It Means for Extension

Justin Smith Morrill, father of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, scarcely envisioned the technological world that would be secured largely through his efforts.The thought just occurred to me yesterday — and a sobering one at that: We Americans have all been Morillized.

As a matter of fact, all of us have been Morrillized to such a degree that we now live in a post-Morrill nation.

Welcome to post-Morrill America.

If you recall your history, the purpose of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862 was to improve the standard of living in the various American states and, ultimately, the nation as a whole by providing the laboring classes with education in the practical arts.

I would contend that Justin Smith Morrill’s vision has exceeded beyond measure and in ways he scarcely considered at the time.   To be sure, not everyone has ascended to the ranks of the middle class. Not everyone possesses a college education.  Even so, the highly technological world that to a significant degree grew out of the Morrill Act has placed all of these practical arts at the fingertips of virtually every individual in this nation.

One of my colleagues, NDSU Extension’s Bob Bertsch, superbly illustrated this recently in his departmental weblog, “The Winnowing Oar,” with a link and accompanying comments about a 45-year-old paper mill worker named Frank Kovacs, who once dreamed of becoming an astrophysicist.  Taxing college math courses thwarted this dream, but this didn’t stop Kovacs from building his own planetarium in his free time — what he describes to visitors as the “world’s largest rolling, mechanical, globe planetarium.”

Kovacs is now an educator with his own self-constructed learning facility.

Bob is right to point out the immense significance behind one of Kovacs’s statements: “To be a planetarium director you need college, but if you build your own, you can run it!”

If any statement speaks volumes about the post-Morrill world in which we live, it is that one.  In terms of knowledge empowerment, people no longer have to wait on someone else.

As Bob so aptly describes it, “Stepping on a college campus or attending a workshop are not the only ways to pursue an education.”

Frank Kovacs has demonstrated that fact.

In a manner of speaking, all this Morrillizing has helped create a technological order in which people are now fully capable of empowering themselves.

I contend that this reality presents Extension with a fascinating question: What is our purpose in a post-Morrill world?

We live in a drastically altered knowledge landscape, one that is flat. To a significant degree, the flat world is one that Justin Smith Morrill made.

We should give him his due — for that matter, we should give ourselves ample credit for the indispensable role we served in Morrillizing America.

However, post-Morrillization presents us with a new set of challenge perhaps best expressed by this question: Where do we go from here?

We should start by reflecting on the most obvious effect of post-Morrillization: Americans are now fully equipped to empower themselves.

Yes, we remain an agency of empowerment but not in the way we were in the past.  Back to that rather unwieldy neologism: contextualizer.   In the future, we will empower people by providing them with deeper, more enriched learning contexts.  In time, we will learn that these contexts are best secured within social networks — networks that are open, responsive and dense enough to ensure the most optimal levels of enrichment.

We must construct nothing less than a new outreach model — in a manner of speaking, a post-Morrill outreach model.

Granted, we have our work cut out for us — or, as farmers would say, we have a “long row to hoe.”

Even so, I, for one, am convinced that our history and experiences uniquely equip us to undertake this transformation.

One thing is certain: Despite these challenges, post-Morrillization is no cause for demoralization.

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A “Strategery” That Seems to Be Working

To borrow a rather memorable term from Saturday Night Live, our “strategery” seems to be working.

Several months ago, I felt inspired to undertake a rewrite of Epsilon Sigma Phi founder W.A. Lloyd’s beloved Extension Creed, written in 1922.

Tinkering with this priceless intellectual artifact of Cooperative Extension identity is undoubtedly considered an act of sheer effrontery in some quarters, and that’s precisely why I did it.

I intended for this to be a disruptive event within Extension — a way to get people focused on the imperative need to transform Cooperative Extension into the 21st century knowledge organization it simply must become.  I wanted it to spark a dialogue about the traits and skills that 21st century Extension educators must acquire to become effective change agents in this emerging global knowledge economy.

To a moderate degree, it appears to have done precisely that.

I’m indebted to two people: Carol Whatley, my department head, who graciously agreed to work my version of the creed into a beautifully rendered .pdf document, and NDSU Extension’s Bob Bertsch, who has managed to get this debate rolling on NDSU’s “The Winnowing Oar: Web Tech in Agriculture and Extension.”

Alongside the creed, Bob was even thoughtful enough to post a word cloud, which adeptly summarizes much of what I was trying to convey.

For me, the most salient section of the creed is the penultimate phrase:

I believe that the prevailing winds of change are summoning us to do what we have always done best: to work, to teach, and to inspire through dialogue and empowerment, demonstrating to our diverse audiences the value of accepting and embracing change as an inevitable facet of life and as an opportunity to formulate new ways of thinking, living, and working.

Collaborative learning is the future. Indeed, as Bob pointed out in one of his earlier pieces, the times have produced a new social and communicative order in which leaders no longer can “hold themselves above or apart from the community.”

As I’ve stressed a time or two before, Extension’s long-time institutional experience with collaborative learning is one of our greatest strengths.  We have been the ones least inclined to play the ivory tower game.  Throughout my career, I’ve been inspired by so many Extension faculty members who have garnered national and even international reputations without ever abandoning their common touch.

That’s a big reason why my faith in this movement’s future is unwavering.