More and more, academia is falling out of favor with the American populace. Over the past several years we have experienced increased public distrust of universities, decreased funding for public higher education, and increased scrutiny into how faculty spend their time. Some would go so far as to say that the results of the recent presidential election were influenced partly by the anti-science, anti-expert, anti-intellectual movement that appears to be sweeping the country. Are academics out-of-touch elitists and technocrats? Maybe some are.
But I like to think that we in Extension are different. Seaman Knapp, known to many of us as the Father of Extension, reportedly advised new faculty against ever referring to themselves as “experts.” One hundred years ago, new Extension agents in Ohio were introduced to their communities as “not a man who comes to criticize existing methods and force his own ideas, but is rather a clearing house where all may bring their problems and work them out together.”
Some of the work of Extension involves delivery of educational programming designed to share useful and practical information with the people of the state. Even when we do so, I believe we do that in a manner that is respectful and non-threatening.
But with Siri, Alexa, and Cortana always by our side to answer any questions we might have, some people are suggesting that Extension isn’t as useful as it was in the past. Even legislators have pointed to their smart phones and said “I can find any information I need on this.” We can’t justify our existence solely as educators or information providers.
I believe we need to speak more loudly and frequently of our work as catalysts for community decision-making and positive change. By working in this way, we back out of the expert role and become a partner in co-creating solutions to issues people care about. The “work” therefore involves bringing local knowledge and science-based information together in a manner that recognizes and honors both.
Consequently, you will hear me using the phrase “bringing people and ideas together” when describing the work of Extension. By referring to our work in this way, we help shape a more relevant and responsive image of academia.