Winter 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 4 // Forum // 4FUT1

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To Educate a People


Michael Quinn Patton
Futures Editor
Minnesota Extension Service-St. Paul

There's an Oriental proverb that captures the essence of a futures perspective for Extension:

To plant a seed is to think a year ahead.
To plant a tree is to think 10 years ahead.
To educate a people is to think 100 years ahead.

This speaks directly to Extension's history as well as to its future. Extension is rooted in agriculture and has contributed to creating the most productive agricultural system in the world. From these roots, Extension has created programs serving youth, homemakers, and communities. As the economy of the United States has become less agricultural, so has Extension programming.

The expansion of Extension into nonagricultural programming hasn't been universally welcomed, nor is it widely known or understood. Yet, the trend is clear. Minnesota provides an excellent example. Until 1986, Extension in Minnesota was called the Agricultural Extension Service. The name was changed to Minnesota Extension Service in 1986 in recognition that over 60% of its activities are nonagricultural programming.

Educating a People

The challenge of extending the knowledge of the university to the larger population isn't limited to agriculture, nor even to home economics, youth, or community resource development.

Adult and continuing education has become a mainstay of major land-grant universities. The relationship between Cooperative Extension and continuing education units varies from state to state. A few states are working at structural or functional integration, while in some, there's suspicion, friction, and competition between the two systems. In most states, each goes its own way. The next few years will see considerable ferment in these relation ships. The future of Extension will depend on how the relationship between Cooperative Extension and continuing education develops.

Continuing education programs have traditionally focused almost entirely on classroom instruction. The major change in these programs in recent years has been taking the classrooms out into the state, instead of holding classes only on campus and making adult learners come to the university. This change was motivated primarily by the more competitive environment of higher education and the changing economics of universities, especially the need to attract a greater number and diversity of students in the face of declining undergraduate enrollments and increasing costs. Yet, this type of classroom-based continuing education instruction, even when made accessible to more people, remain quite limited in vision.

Extension, on the other hand, offers a broader vision of informal, community-based education centered on the needs and interests of the people served by Extension. Extension methods include a variety of ways to provide education and a great diversity of communication strategies.

Great opportunities for Extension lie in a marriage of informal educational methods with a universitywide content. The future of Extension will be determined in part by our ability to broaden the Extension process to include all knowledge in the universitynot just our traditional program areas.


Within universities, Extension will face competition in sorting out who will provide leadership and have primary responsibility for university outreach. Many departments and colleges engaged in continuing education will view a broader role for Extension with suspicion. As these issues are debated in universities, Extension professionals will need a clear understanding of what the Extension tradition has to offer wider university outreach efforts. Below are the items I'd include as central Extension strengths, which can be the foundation of Extension's future as the centerpiece of university outreach in all areas of knowledge.

  1. Extension's Bottom-Up Program Development. Extension's community-based program development process is unique in universities. Virtually all other university activities are top down. They begin with university people making decisions about what people need. Knowledge transfer then takes place from the university to the community using the university's traditional classroom instruction methods. Participation is driven by the carrot of credits.

    The Extension process, in contrast, begins in local communities and feeds into the university, making for more responsive and better targeted programs. The Extension carrots are relevance and usefulness, rather than credits.

  2. Extension Methods. Extension professionals know more about informal, adult education than any other group on campus. One of the great ironies of university life is that so few principles of adult learning are recognized, understood, and incorporated into university teaching. To effectively educate the people in all areas of university knowledge will require methods quite different from traditional classroom instruction. The reservoir of knowledge for those different kinds of education is Extension.
  3. Statewide Network. The county-based Extension network linking the university to the people in each state is unique within universities. That linkage includes the relationship between campus-based specialists and county agents who provide direct programming to the people. In the future, the Extension office in each county may become a genuine outreach office for the entire university, not just the Extension Service.
  4. An Applied Perspective. Extension and experiment stations have created an applied research capability that is both unique and powerful. Throughout disciplines and across university departments, a tension exists between basic and applied research. Definitions vary, as do relative values. But, on the whole, applied research is valued less than basic research, and university people doing applied research are accorded lower status and esteem than their basic research colleagues. Extension and experiment station personnel have dealt with these issues for a longer time and with greater effectiveness than any other groups on campus. As land-grant universities look to the future, they'll need the understanding developed by Extension and experiment stations about how to conduct and extend applied research in all areas of knowledge.
  5. Commitment. Extension's commitment to educating people throughout the state, at all levels of society and in every community, is unparalleled. There are periodic threats to the great land-grant vision on which Cooperative Extension is based. Our colleagues in many parts of the university neither understand nor share this vision and commitment. Extension is the central reservoir of land-grant values in land-grant universities. Part of the challenge of the future is to extend those values into all parts of the university.

Strategic Vision

Extension's future isn't guaranteed. The landgrant values undergirding Extension are in peril in many universities. Resources are diminishing. The response of most Extension Services seems to be retrenchment, circling our wagons, and learning to cope with downsizing.

I'm suggesting that this is precisely the moment to broaden our vision. This is precisely the time to build the foundation for a genuinely university-wide Extension system-providing leadership for all aspects of university outreach.

This isn't a time for timidity, bemoaning reduced resources, and retreating to a narrower vision of Extension. The future lies in a broader, not narrower, mission.

A Broad Mission

To educate a people doesn't mean that one will cease to be interested in planting seeds and trees. Those activities, which have been a central part of Extension's past, will continue. But the seeds planted won't be limited to those that turn into plants. The variety of seeds of knowledge disseminated by universities will increase in the future. Extension can have central responsibility for planting this wider range of seeds.

Likewise, those trees that Extension nurtures in the future can be trees that yield the full variety of fruit-trees of knowledge for entire communities. The seeds and trees planted in the future can be part of educating the people in all aspects of knowledge that the university offers, all of which can have an impact on people's lives.

To educate a people is to undertake a broad mission with visionary leadership. To educate a people is to think 100 years ahead.