Friday, May 07, 2010

Making knowledge available for good purposes: an important task and a complex one

As a beginning doctoral student, I had the good fortune to work on a project that studied the role of US Land Grant universities in “sister institutions” projects. The “University Contract Program,” which began in 1949, was intended to reproduce the “Land Grant model” of higher education, focusing on agricultural development, in impoverished countries throughout the world. The project was described in a US government report on which I collaborated, Building Institutions to Serve Agriculture and in my first book, Partners in Development.

This was my first exposure to ‘the Land Grant model,’ a uniquely American contribution to the philosophy of higher education. Enabling legislation, “The Morrill Act,” passed in the late 19th century, provided “grants” of land to endow individual state-sponsored universities, particularly in the American Midwest, South and Southwest. The University of Minnesota, where I wrote my dissertation, then enrolling more than 50,000 students, was such an institution as were the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Indiana, Cornell University (the only ‘Ivy League’ Land Grant institution) and many more.

What made Land Grant universities distinctive was an idea that was, at the time (in the late 1880s), revolutionary. Their mission was not only to educate the young and to generate new knowledge through research. A co-equal mission was serving the communities in which they were located by making the results of research widely accessible in forms that community members could understand and put to good use. Because Land Grant Universities were mostly located in agricultural states, particular emphasis was placed on helping farmers and agricultural businesses.

The result was America’s unique system of “Agricultural extension” that encompassed “academic disciplines” such as economics, physics, and biology, “applied disciplines” such as engineering, agricultural economics, agronomy and soil science,” agricultural research laboratories (an international example is the Philippines Rice Research Institute) and units that produced Agricultural Extension Bulletins and other community oriented publications. These were resources for County Agents who worked one-on-one with farmers to help them improve productivity and administered community programs such as the popular 4-H (Head, Hands, Heart and Health) Program for young people in which my children participated when they were growing up.

My studies of the Land Grant Idea inculcated two lessons that have remained with me throughout a forty-plus year career as professor, researcher and activist. First is that the task of making knowledge accessible in a form that can be put to good use is complex and challenging. It is a ‘discipline’ in itself. Many professional academics fail to understand this, are discouraged by mentors and university administrators from becoming “popularizers” or, perhaps, simply don’t care. Perhaps the second should be called a belief - or value - rather than a lesson. It is that the task of putting knowledge to good use, by making it accessible is at least as important as generating new knowledge and that it should be part higher education institutions‘ missions.

Here are illustrations of the extension function from my own knowledge and experience. In the 1970s, the Club of Rome was an expression of founder Aurelio Peccei’s passion for bringing the best of available knowledge to bear on “the Predicament of Mankind.” Now this is seen as the issue of ‘sustainability,‘ broadly defined. The Limits to Growth book that Peccei’s passion catalyzed was based on a computer model - not generally viewed as an accessible topic. This widely read, publicized and translated book played a major role in raising consciousness about sustainability issues.

The late Donella Meadows resigned a tenured full professorship at Dartmouth College out of her commitment to making knowledge accessible. Her ‘Global Citizen‘ columns (available on line at www:// are models of accessible communication. The MacArthur Foundation’s recognition of Dr. Meadows contributions with a “Genius Grant” is one testimony to their importance.

Bill McKibben has taken his ideas and knowledge of global warming and manifested them, with the help of 7 Middlebury College undergraduates, as the 360 movement, which produced the largest global-scale conscious raising event ever held. Krista Tippett’s US National Public Radio Program, “Speaking of Faith,” a program about spirituality, ethics, meaning and ideas,” reaches an audience of more than 2,000,000 via radio and podcast. Now some higher education institutions are beginning to reach out to wider audiences through iTunes university and other social networking sites.

So The Land Grant Idea of serving communities with accessible, useful knowledge is alive and well. There are many promising models, especially taking advantage of the new opportunities that multimedia technologies provide. But more needs to be done, and especially in higher education institutions. Neither the complexity of the task, nor its importance should be underestimated.

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