October 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 5 // Commentary // 5COM1

Issue Contents Previous Article

Swatting Flies--Eating Elephants

"Swatting Flies--Eating Elephants" challenges the Extension system to become a premier adult education agency by focusing talented teachers on real world clientele. The thesis is that Extension has compromised itself by clinging to a dwindling clientele-base with an unfocused curriculum and a strategy of political reliance.

Bill Russell
Extension Communications Specialist
Cooperative Extension Service
University of Arkansas
Internet address: brussell@uaex.arknet.edu

The Cooperative Extension Service, USDA has been federally mandated since 1914 to transfer University based research in Agriculture, Home Economics, and Youth Development to each of the states as an adult education agency.

During the past 30 years however, the agency has simply struggled to adapt to societal changes in terms of re-orienting to a fundamentally industrial and service oriented population. Compounding this situation is the inability of the agency to employ sufficient professionals with strong teaching skills-- relying instead on an arsenal of technical publications and employees who are fundamentally research oriented rather than teaching oriented.

The result is an organization that has been relatively ineffective in keeping small farmers solvent and in which large farmers have little real need. It is an organization that continues to promote canning, arts and crafts, club work for homemakers and breadmaking, bicycling, and bait casting for youth development.

In short, while the agency can lay claim to some good activities, these are often redundant and less than profound in impact--certainly questionable in terms of tax dollar support. This subjects the agency more than ever before to the tax payer chopping block. We have degraded our own importance through a strategy of mediocrity and minimal risk taking and anyone doubting this should simply make random inquiry to the population we purport to serve. How much public support is really out there?

The gradual yet burdensome politicization of the agency has clouded its vision to the important needs of our citizenry and left the organization steeped in decades of tradition and clinging to a dwindling constituency rather than an expanding one. The real shame is that in an era of information explosion and bombardment of data tainted with biases, there is indeed a clear need for an organization committed to extending timely and pertinent facts to a busy public hungering for truth without compromise.