October 2007 // Volume 45 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA7

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Can Cross-Cultural Engagement Improve the Land-Grant University?

Cultural diversity goes beyond political correctness, cutting to the core academic mission of constructing knowledge. Cooperative Extension faculty who develop intercultural competence can be leaders in bringing diverse forms of knowledge to land-grant universities. Engaging people with knowledge that does not correspond to scientific models or worldviews challenges scientific professionals to identify what they take for granted. Examples show how cross-cultural engagement can improve classroom teaching and research.

Craig A. Hassel
Associate Professor and Extension Nutritionist
Department of Food Science & Nutrition
University of Minnesota
St. Paul, Minnesota


A recent JOE article evaluated progress on the Change Agent States for Diversity (CASD) project (Ingram, 2006). CASD is a multi-institutional effort supporting greater cultural diversity in land-grant universities, with a goal to reposition the Cooperative Extension and Land-Grant System to function successfully in a multicultural community. While some progress for CASD was reported, a number of teams indicated that within their institutions, this work was not considered a top priority, but described as an "add on" (Ingram, 2006).

Many academic professionals may not see a direct connection between cultural diversity and improving the land-grant university discovery, teaching, and engagement missions. This article shows how cultural diversity and intercultural competence are interwoven with a better land-grant university: better science, better teaching, and better engagement.

First, I describe how culture and science are related, based upon personal experience in cross-cultural engagement (Hassel, 2005). Then I offer specific examples that show how both classroom teaching and research can benefit from engaging diverse cultures and knowledge. Finally, I suggest that Cooperative Extension professionals who develop intercultural competence can lead the way to a better land-grant university, one that better values and respects the diverse knowledge assets found within non-academic communities.

Connecting Diversity and Science Through Worldview

How might cultural diversity lead to better science? My own training as a nutritional biochemist suggests upon first impressions there is little connection. But important aspects of cultural difference extend beyond observable dimensions to include different ways of understanding and constructing knowledge about the world (Semali & Kincheloe, 1999; Cajete, 2000; Nisbett, 2002). The idea that human knowledge is created in a cultural context points us to significant connections between science and culture.

As a graduate student, I was implicitly taught a set of ideas about how science represents the universal means for providing legitimate knowledge about how the world works. Authoritative knowledge must come from qualified experts conducting professional inquiry using the methods and procedures sanctioned by scientific societies (Maxwell, 1984). People in society who are not academically qualified or engaged in scientific research cannot be expected to provide cogent, authoritative criticisms of scientific results arising out of their own personal views (Popper, 1959; Kuhn, 1962; Maxwell, 1984).

This stance leaves little room for accommodation of knowledge derived in other ways, except in so far as this knowledge can be framed hypothetically, to be put to the test of experimental success or failure. In other words, the ideas of people in society can be studied empirically by professionals, but do not themselves constitute serious contributions to scientific knowledge.

About 12 years ago, I began to work directly with communities of diverse cultural orientations with little connection to land-grant universities (Hassel, 2004). I began to develop working relationships with elders from Reservation communities, leaders from Tribal Colleges, and practitioners of Chinese medicine. The ancestral and ancient forms of knowledge commanded by these individuals were not "scientific" in any sense I had been taught, yet each offered its own coherence that provided grounding and substance for that community.

For example, Chinese medical theory sees balanced nutrition in terms of sensory and flavor properties of food, while indigenous communities embrace the spiritual nurturance of food as a sacred relationship to place and interconnection with "all that is." What was I to make of this knowledge? Are these ideas wrong, irrational, or nonsense simply because they are incongruent with a scientific perspective? I began to understand how these ideas begin from a very different perspective of how the world works.

Consider, for example, the primal idea that conscious intelligence is not limited to the autonomous human brain, but exists throughout the body, environment, and cosmos. This idea represents a basic assumption common to many indigenous cultures, but seemingly strange to most scientific professionals of European descent raised in the United States. By encountering and critically reflecting upon an idea that we first might consider quite strange, we begin the process of apprehending the world through different eyes. At the same time, we can come away with a better appreciation of our own cultural grounding.

Continuing with the example above, a critically reflective academic professional might begin to articulate a presupposition common to western science: the human mind is set apart in nature as the exclusive source of consciousness and intelligence in an otherwise objective, unconscious world. This familiar notion is often taken for granted by scientists. It is not the result of scientific experiments, so it does not represent scientific knowledge. Rather, it is one example of an a priori presupposition common to western/scientific inquiry (Wallace, 2000). Confronting strange ideas can help us to learn about ourselves.

The work of Richard Nisbett, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, is noteworthy because it demonstrates how cultural differences cause people to see the world differently and to think differently about it (Nisbett, 2002, p100):

To the Asian, the world is a complex place, composed of continuous substances, understandable in terms of the whole rather than in terms of the parts, and subject to more collective than to personal control. To the Westerner, the world is a relatively simple place, composed of discreet objects that can be understood without undue attention to context, and highly subject to personal control. Very different worlds indeed.

As my own cross-cultural engagement (CCE) work continued, I began to see the many ways that I had taken for granted the cultural grounding of science. Where before I had simply presumed that science represented the path to universal truth, I began to gain greater appreciation for how acceptance of this idea "blinded" me to a more nuanced understanding of western science as a culturally constructed "worldview" (Figure 1). By "worldview," I mean a set unconscious and implicitly held presumptions and beliefs forming the basis for a people's comprehension of the world (Cajete, 2000).

Figure 1.
Aspects of Culture Can Be Categorized from Highly Visible and Tangible to Progressively Deeper, Less Visible yet More Powerful Levels. The More Tangible, Objective Aspects of Culture Are Difficult to Interpret Appropriately Without Grounding in the Less Tangible, but More Powerful and Subjective Epistemology and Worldview. Adapted from previous work (Schein, 1992; Hassel, 2004; Hassel, 2006).

The concept of worldview is important as it represents the least visible, yet most entrenched aspect of our thinking. Most of us are not aware of our worldview because it is not consciously learned so much as implicitly absorbed from our surrounding culture. Our worldview represents the "givens" tat are non-negotiable because they are invisible and often unconscious. If a worldview remains unchallenged, members will find behavior based on any other premise almost inconceivable.

The process of cross-cultural engagement (CCE) challenges my worldview because it brings me together with citizens who do not necessarily rely upon the western/scientific worldview (Hassel, 2004). Interacting with people who see the world differently challenges me to examine my assumptions and become more aware of what I have been taking for granted. As a scientist, embedded presuppositions can be surfaced as unexamined assumptions of how the world works. These ideas can be articulated and given over to critical reflection.

This kind of work can seem quite threatening and de-stabilizing if one feels a need to bring judgment to a particular worldview as necessarily either true or false. Although dualistic thinking is common to western science, I believe this stance risks closing valuable learning opportunities, especially a fundamentalist perspective that insists upon only one truth. It should also be noted that there is significant diversity among indigenous knowledge systems, and no knowledge should be accepted uncritically. Worldview provides the context in which to appropriately consider legitimacy of knowledge.

What is a western/scientific worldview? Wallace (2000) describes the philosophical tenets of scientific materialism as one that:

  • Objectifies the natural world.

  • Separates the "objective" world of fact, matter and physical reality from the "subjective" world of mind, consciousness, personal experience and values.

  • Sees the human observer as separate (detached) from the observed.

  • Sees scientific knowledge as observer independent.

  • Provides little or no accommodation for subjective phenomena in scientific knowledge.

  • Sees complex phenomena as explainable in terms of simpler component phenomena; macro-events are caused by micro-phenomena.

  • Asserts that all information can be derived from physically measurable data.

  • Sees physically measurable outcomes as caused by other physical events.

  • Asserts "neutrality" with respect to normative values.

These ideas are not universal, but cultural constructions. They are traceable as a "philosophy of science," or "logical empiricism" back through 17th century Europe, to ancient Greek civilization (Maxwell, 1984; Tarnas, 1991). Working across cultural differences creates opportunities where these ideas can be critiqued as conjecture and contrasted with alternatives. Despite its ideal of skeptical inquiry, the process of western science fails to critically examine its own metaphysical presuppositions (Collingwood, 1940; Wallace, 2000). CCE can improve scientific thinking by adding this dimension to scientific inquiry. Cooperative Extension can bring leadership to how these ideas interface with contemporary problems in a multicultural world.

The next section describes how diverse forms of knowledge from outside academic halls have been brought into the land-grant university classroom teaching and research functions. These examples are presented to illustrate how Cooperative Extension can become a resource for innovation in classroom teaching and research.

Classroom Example of CCE

CSPH 5111, "Ways of Thinking About Health," was developed as a direct result of relationships built with communities through outreach work (Hassel, 2004). The course offers students a rare opportunity to explore diverse cultural contexts through field-trip immersion experiences. This pedagogical approach is based upon the premise that merely learning about different worldviews and healing systems from a fixed, familiar, and detached perspective is an insufficient educational goal. Given the global forces of the 21st century, learners need to develop the skills to actively shift one's own perspective to think critically and experience learning from within the worldview of the knowledge system being explored. Accordingly, the goals of the course are to cultivate students' ability to:

  • Think critically and fair-mindedly, and reason empathetically within a knowledge system under study using its own worldview and basic assumptions; and

  • Move across divergent worldviews without imposing basic assumptions of one perspective upon another.

For example, how might students begin to think from within an indigenous worldview to gain a substantive understanding of American Indian healing? In this course, we take students for an arranged weekend camping visit to a reservation. There, the elders are acknowledged as the content experts. Students informally listen to elders tell cultural stories over a campfire, take a nature walk to learn about different herbs, visit wild rice beds, gather wild grapes and plums, make jelly with elders, and learn from them how to finish wild rice and make a birch-bark basket.

Students each see and experience for themselves a traditional way of life and begin to learn about the worldview of the community through oral histories that guide these traditions. This worldview includes ideas that humans are related to all else in the natural world, that the natural world is seen as alive and sentient, and sustainability with the seventh generation always in mind. They learn about respect for nature because "what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves", and that "our food is our medicine."

Contrary to a Eurocentric worldview valuing human dominion over nature, an indigenous worldview teaches that humans can be considered the most pathetic of all beings because of our complete dependence upon the natural world for our own survival, taking much from it, but contributing little. There is ample time and encouragement from elders for questions and open conversation. Then, students hear from medicine men and women about healing practices and use of medicines, presented within the context of these values, knowledge and worldview.

Here is what students say:

Experience is the best teacher. I had already read some books and articles about Native American's life and medicine (and watch TV programs, etc.). However, I didn't feel that was real. If you saw people, felt that wind, smelled the aroma of wild parching, experienced what people are doing, you could easily understand what they feel. Where their thoughts & ideas come from.
I didn't originally expect the field trips to be as rewarding, but they really made learning possible--above anything else. The field trips provided the missing element of almost all university learning situations. LEARNING BY DOING--this is what the field trips did for us. WE EXPERIENCD other modalities. We couldn't have learned what we did without this experience.
These field trips were the class. Without them, the ideas that were taught would be incomprehensible from a classroom setting. This was, by far, the most interesting and thought provoking class of my career.
This course has far surpassed my expectations. I have been able to live and experience the course material while learning from people who practice alternative approaches to health and well-being. I have learned by doing--the best way for me."

The course allows students to explore ancient medical systems (Vedic, Chinese, Native American) from within by allowing them to experience implicit foundational worldviews. The immersion process allows students a context in which cultural values and knowledge systems become more visible and explicit. The dissonance of being confronted with a fundamentally different worldview forces students to surface and examine their own basic assumptions, creating a powerful, transformative learning experience.

Research Example of CCE

Concerns about quality and safety of medicinal herbs in the United States have the attention of scientists and regulatory agencies, which are confronted with numerous challenges to better define and delineate product quality, from production through processing to final products used by consumers. Resident practitioners of Chinese medicine (CM) have highly vested interests in these issues because of the central role for medicinal herbs in the CM system of practice. But established scientific and regulatory organizations that rely upon biomedical understandings of pathology do not accept the definitions for medicinal herb quality used by CM. CM does not rely upon the chemical composition of food or herbs as a basis for understanding medicinal efficacy, safety or quality.

According to Chinese medical theory:

  • Dietary and herbal therapies are identified and classified through the sensory attributes that naturally occur in these substances.

    • A sensory attribute, called "property" (si xing), refers to the experience of cold, cool, warm, or hot once ingested or applied externally (Bensky & Gamble, 1993; Hsu et al., 1986; Veith, 1949). Mint, for example, is said to be cooling, as are watermelon and cucumber, whereas ginger is said to be warming, as are cayenne pepper and cinnamon.
    • Flavor (wei) refers to the sensory attribute that occurs with the sensation of "taste"--sweet, pungent, salty, sour, and bitter--when a substance is placed in the mouth (Bensky & Gamble, 1993; Veith, 1949). Flavor is considered to be a manifestation of the Qi inherent in a substance. Qi is usually translated as "energy" or "vital energy," although there is no one word in English that adequately captures the full meaning of the word as it is used in CM.

  • The sensory attributes of property and flavor inherent in a particular food or medicinal substance create an "energetic" profile of that substance. Some 5,700 plant, animal, mineral substances are categorized in this way by the Chinese material medica (Bensky & Gamble, 1993, Hsu et al., 1986).

  • The "energetic" profile is used by the Chinese medical practitioner to guide the appropriate use of that food or substance to manipulate Qi and promote health and mitigate disease in a patient (Bensky & Gamble, 1993; Hsu et al., 1986; Veith, 1949).

The research approach we developed combines CM theory with descriptive sensory analysis (Hassel, Hafner, Soberg, Adelmann, et al., 2002). Descriptive sensory analysis is a set of procedures used within a sub-discipline of food science to evaluate flavor intensity of foods using trained test panelists (Hootman, 1992). Because this branch of food science acknowledges (and measures) the subjective experiences of taste, aroma, and texture, it offers coherence with CM theory. Descriptive sensory analysis can be used to:

  • Define and identify many organoleptic attributes of medicinal herbs by graduate student food scientist panelists unfamiliar with these herbs.

  • Discriminate varying intensity of these attributes across different samples of the same medicinal herb species.

  • Correlate perceptions of intensity as determined by descriptive sensory analysis with perceptions of medicinal herb quality as assessed by expert CM practitioner/ pharmacists.

  • Create a lexicon to describe medicinal herb quality in a manner consistent with CM theory.

The lexicon could be used to communicate understandings of quality attributes from CM practitioners to local growers. Growers, in turn, could use this understanding to target growing and processing protocols to maximize desired sensory attributes and minimize unwanted attributes, from a CM perspective. In this way, growers have a means to add value and quality to locally grown products. More broadly, this work illustrates possibilities for innovative research that preserves the coherence of CM theory while using contemporary methods from an established scientific discipline.


The value of cultural diversity to land-grant universities is not a matter of political correctness, but cuts to the core of constructing knowledge about the world. In summary:

  • Engaging with people who do not rely upon western/scientific perspectives challenges academic professionals to articulate what they take for granted about science.

  • Developing sensitivity to cultural differences in ways of knowing reveals the cultural basis of western/scientific perspectives.

  • Recognizing all human knowledge as culturally constructed leads to culturally competent exploration of different forms of knowledge, including strengths and limitations.

  • Bringing consideration for diverse forms of knowledge to the teaching, research and engagement functions can improve the land-grant university.

Cooperative Extension professionals who develop intercultural competence will be positioned to play a valuable role in helping to transform the land-grant university into a more inclusive environment.


The author wishes to acknowledge the Woodlands Wisdom Confederation of Tribal Colleges, the Medicinal Herb Network, the Powderhorn/Phillips Cultural Wellness Center, and the Dream of Wild Health Network for the mentoring that contributed to this manuscript. This work was supported through funding from the following sources: USDA Agricultural Experiment Station Project MIN-54-059, University of Minnesota Extension Service, and USDA IFAFS Project #2001-52102-1177.


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