Winter 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 4 // To The Point // 4TP3

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Expanding the Extension Horizon


Zerle L. Carpenter
Director, Texas Agricultural Extension Service and 1993 ECOP Chair
Texas A&M University-College Station
Internet address:

Boyle and Mulcahy are right on target in their contention that public policy or public issues education can help Extension change its image and broaden it support base. Furthermore, I'd argue that it's the right thing to do.

In this time of rapid change, our nation's economic, societal, and environmental well-being may rest more than ever on the people's ability to make informed choices about public issues.

A 1992 ECOP position statement indicates that "the Cooperative Extension System is committed to addressing the nation's need for public issues education." Public issues education is defined as "educational programs which have the objective of enhancing the society's capacity to understand and address issues of widespread concern."

Who else is better equipped to deal with public issues education-to present an unbiased view, the pros and cons, alternatives, and consequences-than Cooperative Extension? Who has better access to the array of resources in our land grant university system and other public and private entities?

Some would argue that Extension should shy away from public issue education because it's wrought with pitfalls. But then, so are many other areas in which we do educational programming. We must be risk-takers and expand our paradigm; after all, education has few parameters.

I believe we must step to the forefront in such areas as food safety, pesticide safety, water quality, environmental quality, hazardous waste management, nutrition education, and drug abuse among youth if we're to broaden our image as an organization concerned with the quality of life of people.

In fact, we have an obligation to provide the public and our stakeholders the best possible information to enhance decision making. Citizens must base their decisions on available information, and unless Cooperative Extension contributes to that information pool, then we're shirking our duties and responsibilities.

Of course, we need not consider ourselves the Lone Ranger in public policy education. There are many resources (individuals and organizations) to draw from, and that's where we should be at our best. Extension has a history of building linkages and partnerships to address issues of public concern, and we must continue to build on that strength. Extension professionals should serve as catalytic leaders, bringing together differing views and resources, to effect a reaction and hopefully establish some common ground regarding an issue.

In south Texas, for example, we had a major conflict between environmental groups and farmers about the use of agri-chemicals and their impact on endangered species. Our county Extension agent played a key role in bringing these opposing groups together to address the issue and resolve their differences. Today, we have a situation of coexistence agreeable to all parties.

Boyle and Mulcahy argue that we may be entering a time when citizen politics is reviving. A 1991 Kettering Foundation report, "Citizens and Politics-A View from Main Street America," indicates citizens feel angry, frustrated, and impotent when it comes to politics, but they also feel a sense of civic duty. The report says,

Americans are not indifferent to public debate and the challenges our nation faces. Americans simply want to participate in this process we call representative government. They only seek the possibility to help bring about change.1

I believe Cooperative Extension can and should provide the forum for citizens to become more involved in discussions on issues and policies that affect their well-being. If Boyle and Mulcahy are correct about a revival in citizen politics (and I hope they are)-if citizens today are really getting more involved in the political arena in an effort to deal with the major concerns and issues facing our nation and the world-then the time is right for Cooperative Extension to become a more active player.

However, a major impediment must be overcome, and I'm surprised they didn't emphasize this problem. Our own community of Extension educators isn't convinced that the system should address many of the important contemporary issues. Wonderful traditions and successes should be honored and cherished, but shouldn't be the tools for self-destruction.

It's been said that "change is inevitable but progress is optional." Extension professionals must demonstrate that we're proponents of progress; that, in fact, we create progress through a proactive approach to public issues education. In doing so, we'll clearly indicate to the citizenry that Cooperative Extension is an essential part of the national educational system.