Tag Archives: Working Knowledge

Now More Than Ever: Cooperative Extension

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[Note: This was prepared as a resource for Extension professionals searching for ways to explain our continued relevance to our diverse audiences and stakeholders during our centennial celebration. This may prove especially useful as the basis for newspaper op-eds.]

The digital demands of the 21st century present Cooperative Extension with a host of challenges —small wonder why Extension educators in every state are revamping their outreach methods, making greater use of online technologies to ensure that they continue to serve our clients in the most relevant and effective ways possible.

Yes, our methods are changing, but we remain true to the core principle of Cooperative Extension: to provide our diverse audiences with working knowledge, showing them how to use knowledge to make lasting, meaningful improvements in their everyday lives and work.

Respect, Openness and Creativity and Innovation

This core principle encompasses other values that underscore life in this increasingly interconnected global society: mutual respect, openness, creativity and innovation. All of these values have formed the bedrock of Cooperative Extension work from the beginning of our history.

They were first affirmed in the farm demonstration efforts of pioneering Extension visionary Seaman Knapp, who encouraged feedback from and sharing among farmers participating in his crop demonstrations in Louisiana.

We’ve contributed our share of creativity and innovation, too. One notable example is the Extension-sponsored boll weevil eradication efforts in the South, which led to many other advances, including crop entomology, crop dusting and crop scouting, to name only a few.

Our outreach efforts spawned other advances — the U.S. Farm Bureau system, public health education, applied home economics, soil conservation and community economic development, to name only a few.

We Are Human Infrastructure!

We hear a lot about how infrastructure — roads, railways and airport terminals — has contributed to our material progress. We have even seen renewed emphasis in recent years on the need to build more of this infrastructure to keep pace with the mounting challenges of the global economy.

The types of human infrastructure that Cooperative Extension has routinely provided for decades through its dense network of grassroots educators will be more important than ever in the 21st century as farming gears up to feed a projected 9.5 billion people by mid-century. The challenges farmers face are daunting: They are being called to meet these new demands even as they expected to develop safer, greener production systems with more emphasis on organically and locally grown foods.

But the enduring value of Cooperative Extension is not limited to farming. Nutrition educators are working to address one of the most serious health epidemics of the 21st century — rising levels of obesity among Americans of all ages and the chronic diseases that typically accompany it. Their counterparts in food safety are striving to educate Americans about the risks of eating from an international table comprised of some foods that are neither produced nor processed in accordance with the hygienic practices commonly taken for granted in the United States.

Forestry educators are equipping landowners will the tools to deal with increasing threats posed by invasive plant species to forestland understories and, ultimately, to trees.

Collaborative Knowledge and Our Role in It

Extension work in the early 20th century also foreshadowed the sorts of open-sourced, shared knowledge that is being adopted all over the world today.

But we bring another critically needed asset to the table. Despite the seemingly inexhaustible sources of information now available online, we still provide our diverse audiences with knowledge in deep, enriched contexts. And we show our audiences how to use this knowledge to enhance their lives in lasting, meaningful ways — back to that core Extension principle: working knowledge.
We continue to succeed because we walk in the footsteps of the earliest generation of Extension pioneers who strove to be knowledge enablers — change agents who add value to knowledge by demonstrating how practical, meaningful and lasting use can be derived from it. They strove to be agents of working knowledge.

This is the proud and enduring legacy that we will carry through the 21st century.

 

Cooperative Extension’s Axial Principle

Oklahoma State University Extension Agent with client

An Oklahoma State University Extension agent providing a client with working knowledge.

The question has been posed to me countless times throughout my career, one that is typically phrased this way: “Just what is Cooperative Extension?”

The whole concept of Cooperative Extension baffles most people. As I’ve pointed out a time or two, relating this concept to novices is as challenging as explaining all the complexities and nuances of the British Commonwealth.

As realities go, this is not good, especially considering the densely crowed, flattened information landscape on which we Extension professionals operate today.  Cooperative Extension’s murky image was luxury we perhaps could afford throughout much of the 20th century, when we occupied a much more conspicuous place within the American intellectual, cultural and public policy landscape.  Today, such murkiness is crushing burden that poses a genuine threat to our survival—precisely why I’ve argued more than once in this forum that the times are calling on use to go axial.  By axial, I mean that we Extension professionals are being challenged as never before to define what lies at the core of our being — to put it another way, to identify those attributes that constitute the essence of who we are and what we do.

Rest assured, though, that simply settling on a definition isn’t enough.  We’ve also got to communicate this definition to our diverse audiences as cogently and effectively as possible — not only to our external audiences but also to our employees.  (And rest assured that many of our employees struggle almost as much with our murky image as our clients and stakeholders do.)

Actually, I don’t think that identifying these core attributes is as hard as many people imagine it to be.

While some of my colleagues may write me off as delusional, I’m more convinced than ever that the essence of Cooperative Extension work can be expressed in this simple term: working knowledge.

Working knowledge is what Cooperative Extension is about — what it’s always been about — providing people with practical, beneficial knowledge to make lasting, meaningful improvements in all facets of their lives, whether this happens to be at home or work.

This axial principal of Cooperative Extension, which has been employed to serve people from many different races and backgrounds in every corner of the planet, started out a preoccupation of farmers in frontier America — farmers who were seeking working knowledge to help them farm more effectively and profitably.

The perennial question remained how — how to disseminate knowledge to the widest number of farmers at a time when the farming population was growing and spreading rapidly across a vast continent.

Farmers’ meetings and institutes, the Morrill Act of 1862, Seaman Knapp’s demonstration plots, Booker T. Washington’s Movable School, corn and tomato clubs  — all of these efforts and many more have essentially comprised a running dialogue about the most effective ways to put practical, beneficial knowledge to work on behalf of farmers where they live and work.

All of these efforts coalesced into the Cooperative Extension movement, which was formalized with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914.  Through this legislation, states were provided matching funds to establish statewide networks of county farm educators, each network functioning under the aegis of its state land-grant college, each the byproduct of an earlier national effort to provide farmers with working knowledge: The Morrill Act of 1862.

Simply put, passage of the Smith-Lever Act marked the culmination of a century-long movement that from its beginning sought to impart working knowledge to farmers.

As it turned out, the movement didn’t stop with farming: It underwent further refinement and adaptation.  Ultimately the working knowledge concept was re-engineered to address the needs of many people from many walks of life with many diverse needs.

In time, it developed into one of the most grassroots educational movements in history, emulated the world over.

Working knowledge: that, as I see it, is the axial principle of Cooperative Extension, the essence of who we are and what we do.