Fall 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA5

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What Values Will Guide Extension's Future?


Ronald M. Jimmerson
Associate Professor
Department of Adult and Youth Education
Washington State University-Pullman

We're already well into an information age. Dillman suggests we've moved from a "community control" era, when Cooperative Extension was established in 1914, to a "mass society" era, which peaked 10-15 years ago to the "information age."1 With the increase in relative importance of information, Dillman sees several needs for Extension: (1) Extension educators learning with clientele rather than being their teacher, (2) overcoming information overload by getting information to clients when they need it, (3) adapting information to local conditions, (4) helping both the economically productive sector that has access to technology and helping those without resources to acquire and use new technology, and (5) making sure the Extension educator is a knowledgeable and trusted consultant.2

Meeting these challenges of the information age will require attention to the values and beliefs that guide us as we work to provide our clients with information and help them solve problems.

Understanding Values and Beliefs

One way to better understand our basic values and beliefs is by examining two paradigms that represent competing world views in industrialized societies.3 Let's call these two paradigms the Dominant Social Paradigm and Alternative Environmental Paradigm. Table 1 shows Cotgrove's summary of the major beliefs and values of these competing paradigms.4

The Dominant Social Paradigm exerts the major influence over our lives in today's society even though some evidence exists that the majority of people in our society hold views more closely aligned with the Alternative Environmental Paradigm.5 The challenge for Extension educators is to examine carefully the values and beliefs we implicitly and explicitly promote through our educational efforts, especially with regard to the knowledge dimensions in Table 1.

Table 1. Counter paradigms.

Dominant social paradigm Alternative environmental paradigm
Core values Material (economic growth)
Natural environment
valued as a resource
Domination over nature
Non-material (self-actualization)
Natural environment intrinsically
Harmony with nature
Economy Market forces
Risk and reward
Rewards for achievement
Individual self-help
Public safety
Incomes related to need
Collective/social provision
Polity Authoritarian structures:
experts influential
Law and order
Participative structures:
citizen/worker involvement
Society Centralized
Large scale
Small scale
Nature Ample reserves
Nature hostile/neutral
Environment controllable
Earth's resources limited
Nature benign
Nature delicately balanced
Knowledge Confidence in science
and technology
Rationality of means
Separation of fact/value,
Limits to science
Rationality of ends
Integration of fact/value,
* Some environmentalists want a return to small-scale communities because
they provide a traditional order-differentiated, hierarchical, and stable.

Facts and Values

One critical part of dealing with the information age is to be aware of our assumptions about information. Jarvis points out that:

A problem in the information society is that very frequently the fact is presented with the interpretations, as if the interpretation were part of the fact itself.6

He also states that those who control information exercise considerable power on society. He, therefore, believes an important role of the educator is to help clients become critically aware of all forms of information they receive, and learn to process the information to make it their own knowledge. He warns that without an educated, critically aware population, able to interpret information for themselves, the elite of society increase their power through information control and totalitarianism begins to emerge.7

These ideas emphasize the importance of several needs identified by Dillman. Specifically, if Extension educators are to help interpret information for local use, make decisions about serving those with fewer resources, and establish trust, we must improve our ability to understand the sources of information, the interpretation provided with the information, and the goals the information is to be used for. The improvement of these types of skills will require training in values, ethics, policy analysis, and critical thinking. Issues programming, in particular, will require attention to the value-laden dimensions of information.


Extension educators have prided themselves in recent years on being "process experts" as well as specialists in a subject-matter area. We've tried to remain neutral about the directions society has taken. Two assumptions exist here: (1) we will help people make their own decisions about the directions their lives and society should take - we'll help them develop the skills to solve their own problems or (2) we'll be information providers, transferring the information generated by research and experts to people who "need" or desire it. These are two perfectly legitimate functions for Extension, but an element's missing. We must recognize that no educational effort is neutral.

In providing information or teaching problem solving, we're promoting some set of values and beliefs. Unless we carefully examine our direction, the values and beliefs we're promoting are likely those of the Dominant Social Paradigm, since Extension is in many ways a part of that paradigm. It's difficult to recognize when these dominant values and beliefs aren't leading to a "better future." Looking at the fringes of society can help us consider alternative values and beliefs. We must challenge ourselves to deeper thinking about the ends toward which we're moving.

Let's take as an example the recent farm crisis. Why, with all the land-grant system's research and Extension's effective educational efforts, are we losing the family farm and the strength of rural communities? The use of paradigms can help us understand the values and beliefs that guided our efforts and led to the farm crisis. Beus8 developed two opposing agricultural paradigms, one for conventional agriculture and one for alternative agriculture. He found that these agricultural paradigms paralleled the Dominant Social Paradigm and Alternative Environmental Paradigm, respectively.

The ideas of former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz epitomize those of the Dominant Social Paradigm, while those of poet farmer, Wendell Berry, epitomize an Alternative Agricultural Paradigm.9 Some, like Butz, would argue that the changes that occurred in agriculture were inevitable, that there really wasn't an alternative. Berry points to the Amish who thrive on small farms, use few nonrenewable resources, and live in close-knit communities as an example of agriculture built on the beliefs and values of an Alternative Agricultural Paradigm.

The point is that, as a society, we can decide the future, but to do so we must agree on a vision, on what we want agriculture, our families, rural communities, and our society to be like in 10, 20, 50, and 100 years. We must not simply help people adapt to inevitable change. Inevitable change is change that's decided on and promoted by the dominant forces of society.

Extension must help our clientele decide what they want their future to be. It means we must choose with them some end we'll promote. Would our clientele argue with goals such as narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, preserving our nonrenewable resources, or helping all citizens gain more control over their lives? These aren't results that have been very successfully achieved in recent years. Why? Because they're not priorities of those who adhere to the beliefs and values of the Dominant Social Paradigm and because educators who focus only on means often end up unwittingly supporting the priorities of that paradigm.

Limits to Science and Technology

The Dominant Social Paradigm places high confidence in science and technology to solve societal problems. The alternative paradigm warns that science has limits, that science deals only with concrete, convergent, technical problems and not with divergent, subjective, "what-should-be" problems. The Dominant Social Paradigm views knowledge as out there to be discovered, while the Alternative Environmental Paradigm recognizes the importance of helping people discover their own reality.

These distinctions become critical in an information society because by accepting the Dominant Social Paradigm we neglect the importance of information coming from the people we serve. We put ourselves in danger of becoming information providers and technology experts rather than educators working with people to promote personal, community, and societal change based on carefully examined values and beliefs.

Several movements in recent years reflect a growing awareness of the limits of science and the benefits of people-focused research.10 All emphasize doing research with people so that they have ownership of their own knowledge and understandings. This emphasis allows alternative paradigms to influence the directions of society.

Summary and Implications

Extension needs to promote deeper examination of values and beliefs to meet the challenges of the information age. With the amazing developments resulting from science, and the amount of new information and the technology available for processing information, we're in danger of being overwhelmed to the point where we lose sight of our vision. To combat the tendency to let the dominant forces in society determine our future, we need to refine our skills in several areas including:

1. Futuring Skills. Systematically visualizing what could and what should be so that our programs remain dynamic, up to date, and able to meet our client needs. This need is being recognized in Extension, but deserves even more attention.

2. Skills in Analyzing Values and Beliefs. Setting goals based on careful analysis of opposing views and recognition that we can't contribute by pretending to do "objective" process education.

3. Skills in Interpreting Information. Recognizing our own biases and those of the information source so that we can help our clients interpret information and form their own knowledge.

4. Skills in Action Research. Helping our clients generate and communicate knowledge about themselves so that they can gain influence and power in an information era.

5. Skills in Balancing Science and Ideology. Helping to match the future our clients want with the research our land-grant institutions conduct. Extension educators must learn how to take the lead in shaping the future, to develop skills in influencing what's researched so science better serves the goals of our clients.

If Extension is to effectively work with our client groups to decide on and move toward a better future, we must critically examine basic values, especially those "information-age" values related to knowledge generation and transfer. We must improve our ability to recognize and deal with: (1) value-laden dimensions of information, (2) values underlying the methods and goals we promote, and (3) values associated with "people knowledge" and "scientific knowledge." If Extension doesn't take the responsibility of understanding and clarifying values that guide our decisions, who will? What future crisis will arise if we don't? We can't chance finding out.


1. Don A. Dillman, "Cooperative Extension at the Beginning of the 21st Century," The Rural Sociologist, VI (No. 2, 1986).

2. Ibid.

3. See, S. Cotgrove, Catastrophe or Cornucopia: The Environment, Politics and the Future (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1982); R. E. Dunlap and K. D. Van Lieve, "The New Environmental Paradigm: A Proposed Measuring Instrument and Preliminary Results," Journal of Environmental Education, IX (Summer 1978), 10-19; and L. W. Milbrath, Environmentalists: Vanguard for a New Society (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984).

4. Cotgrove, Catastrophe or Cornucopia, p. 27.

5. C. Beus, Agricultural Paradigms: The Conflict Between Alternative Agriculture and Conventional Agriculture (Master's Thesis, Washington State University, Pullman, 1987).

6. Peter Jarvis, "Thinking Critically in an Information Society: A Sociological Analysis," Lifelong Learning, VIII (April 1985), 12.

7. Ibid., p. 13.

8. Beus, Agricultural Paradigms.

9. "Earl Butz versus Wendell Berry," The Co-Evolution Quarterly, XVII (Spring 1978), 50-59.

10. See, Budd Hall, "Participatory Research Popular Knowledge and Power: A Personal Reflection," Convergence, XIV (No. 3, 1985).