Land Grants, Extension and the Promise of Civic Science

As I described in my last column on public happiness, Nicholas Kristof's recent New York Times column on the detachment of academics from today's debates ("Professors, We Need You!" February 15, 2014) reflects growing sentiment that academics need to make their views "public." The public work tradition in land grant colleges and the extension service adds another element -- academics are citizens, with multiple contributions to make to public life.

Kristof is part of a trend. Thus, a January 2012 editorial in the leading science journal Nature calls for scientists to get into the fray. "Where political leadership on climate change is lacking scientists must be prepared to stick their heads above the parapet." The editorial observed that "climate change contrarians are multiplying in numbers." Their solution: "Climate scientists must be ever more energetic in taking their message to citizens."

The assumption reflected in the Nature editorial is that academics are different than citizens.

Who is a citizen?

Growing academic detachment over the past half century, detailed in studies such as Thomas Bender and Carl Schorske's collection, American Academic Cultures in Transformation, has played a powerful, if invisible, role in this distinction. Detachment has fueled what Bender describes as the shift from "civic professionalism" to "disciplinary professionalism." This shift operates everywhere, affecting common views of "citizenship" itself.

When the Center for Democracy and Citizenship partnered with Falcoln Heights, Minnesota, in a discussion of what roles citizens can play in quelling school violence after the Newtown tragedy, the audience of 25 or so in the citizen town hall included the mayor, the police chief, the city manager, teachers, a local principal, social agency workers, a university professor from the College of Architecture and Design, four students, IT business entrepreneurs -- and two elderly residents. The residents expressed regret that "there are so few citizens," implying that "citizens" are volunteers like themselves.

No one from any of the work sites in the community raised any questions about the definition. When town hall facilitators did raise questions, it prompted a lively conversation about how much power there might be in the community to address gun violence if people see their work in civic terms and work sites as civic sites.

We have become a nation of consumers of democracy, not producers of democracy. Today, as a result, Americans feel collective powerlessness to address mounting problems. And faculty members, role models for the legion of professionals who are shaped in college, have played an unwitting part in this process as they have come to see themselves, at most, as simply providing expert advice and as training other professional experts. Conventional views of citizenship now take public and civic meanings of work off the map. Citizen teachers, civic business owners, citizen clergy, citizen librarians, citizen nurses, even "civil" servants have disappeared.

In a time of enormous change, higher education has strong self-interest in understanding and claiming its invisible power to shape the civic identities and careers of its students. Colleges and universities need to become vital parts of the work of building a democratic society.

The land grant legacy as a resource:

Here, the democratic history of land grants and the extension system holds many lessons. The American Commonwealth Partnership coalition, which the White House invited me to organize to mark the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act establishing land grant colleges in 2012, sought to make this history better known.

From the beginning, land grant colleges often sought to develop professionals with a strong sense of civic responsibilities and the civic skills to act effectively. Such emphasis deepened with the creation of extension in 1914. Thus, Liberty Hyde Bailey, a leading horticulturalist, chair of Theodore Roosevelt's Country Life Commission which developed the extension philosophy, stressed practical work with communities to solve public problems and to create civic capacity.

"Students in agriculture take part in a great regeneration. The student in agriculture is fitting himself for a great work," said Bailey.

He challenged a narrow view of Extension work, where Extension agents and academics simply provide technical or scientific information. The expert role alone could create dangerous dependencies.

"The re-direction of any civilization must rest primarily on the people who comprise it, rather than be imposed from persons in other conditions of life," said Bailey.

College-based rural scientists needed to keep in mind the most important objective: helping communities develop their own capacity for self-action and rural democracy. The point was not merely solving the specific problem. Rather, it was the fact that the public work of problem-solving creates opportunities to deepen civic agency.

Civic science brings democracy and science together:

Though the term was not used, these practices can be called "civic science," a politics of knowledge in which scientists are citizens. This civic science came alive in soil conservation efforts during the Great Depression. Soil conservation scientists were constantly reminded that the community's knowledge was prior to their own. Gaining a deep understanding of the community, its history, culture, political life, conflicts, was essential for their efforts. The result is today's magnificent system of contour farming across the Midwest.

At the White House 2012 meeting, ACP launched Civic Science, an initiative which John Spencer and I described in an earlier blog to recall histories of democratic scientific practices and to flesh them out in an explicit conceptual framework.

Involving leading scientists, our civic science team re-conceptualizes scientists as citizens, learning the skills and practices of collaborative public work with other citizens on pressing public problems. Civic science stresses science as a resource for action in the world, not mainly an external description of the world. It highlights citizens as co-creators of democracy, and emphasizes civic empowerment.

The National Science Foundation, with a grant to our colleagues at the University of Iowa's Delta Center, is supporting a workshop this fall to further develop civic science. The workshop will create a set of "lessons from the field" based on powerful case studies of civic science in different areas. We will also begin to firm up a strategy for a network of civic science sites.

We believe that cooperative extension, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, will provide an important venue for civic science, in a time of enormous challenges and opportunities.

Harry Boyte, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, has collaborated with the Delta Center over the past decade in developing the framework of civic science. Boyte is Co-Principal Investigator on the National Science Foundation civic science grant. This post is adapted from "Extension Reconsidered and the Promise of Civic Science," in the Extension Reconsidered blog, discussing and debating the future of the Extension Service.