Saturday, October 24, 2009

Where's Joe Hill?

This morning I listened again to Joan Baez’s wonderful rendition of “Joe Hill.”

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you or me.

Says I, “But Joe you’re ten years dead.” “I never died,” says he.

“The copper bosses killed you, Joe. They shot you,Joe,” says I.

“It takes more than guns to kill a man,” says Joe. “I didn’t die.”

And standing there as big as life and smiling with his eyes,

Says Joe, “What they can never kill went on to organize.”

From San Diego up to Maine, in every mine and mill

When workingmen defend their rights, that’s where you’ll find Joe Hill.

It is sad to think how far we have drifted from the vision that Joe Hill and people like him worked to achieve so many years ago. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, long after those early struggles to gain basic rights for working people. But I remember well how tough it was when my uncles went on strike in the Shenango Valley mills when I was a boy and how they hoped that the hardships that the strikes imposed on their families would result not just in better days, but better years ahead.

Today, the corporate takeover of American life is very nearly complete. Executives take huge salaries and bonuses, while working to rescind the hard-won benefits of the people who actually make the things America exports. Working people have been diverted by divisive social issues like abortion and homosexual rights—the bread and circuses of today’s right-wing politicians--while the corporations have undermined the fundamental rights of workers to health care, job security, and a decent wage.

I can only hope that the current recession gives us pause to consider a new social morality that replaces the neo-conservative “gilded age” with a more humble commitment to social responsibility.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Re-Perceiving the Land Grant University: Engaging Communities

The original mission of the Land Grant university was very much a response to social and economic needs that arose as a generation into the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. Today, a generation into the Information Revolution, we again must ask: What are the needs of society to which we can respond?

Among the critical problems that the land grant university addressed—and that defined its position in American life for several generations—was the need to greatly improve agricultural production. In the 1880s and 1890s, the United States was undergoing a two-front social revolution: rapid urbanization, as industry located near existing population and transportation centers, growing small river towns into major cities; and mass immigration, as millions came from Europe and elsewhere to find new opportunities and, in the process, provide the manpower for growing industries. A critical concern was that the nation maintain—and improve—its agricultural base in order to support urbanization and immigration.

The problem was partly one for science: how to improve agricultural productivity and sustainability of farms in order to produce more food for the cities. However, there was another dimension: literally, “how to keep them down on the farm.” Rural life was hard. Farm families did not have access to modern conveniences such as electricity and telephones. Even mail delivery was a problem until Rural Free Delivery was created in the 1890s—itself a response to the concern about improving the quality of rural life.

Land grant universities addressed these issues with a series of remarkable innovations (many of which we now take for granted, but that were radical changes in higher education in their day). These included:

  • Cooperative Extension Service, which coordinated funding from county, state, and federal sources to bring university expertise directly into communities. The result was the ideal of the Country Agent standing with the farmer in the field, working together on problems.
  • Four-H and Home Life programs that improved the quality of family life in rural areas and encouraged young people to stay in agriculture.
  • Correspondence study, which took advantage of Rural Free Delivery to extend both noncredit and credit courses to individuals in rural areas.
  • Management Development services that provided training to small business owners.

Over the years, other innovations built on these early departures, including the application of the extension concept to energy and environmental issues in the late 20th century, investments in educational broadcasting to better reach homes and schools, and impact research as a way of integrating the faculty member’s teaching, service, and research functions.

Engaging Communities in the Information Society

A generation into the Information Society, we must ask at least two questions:

(1) What are the problems to which the resources of our land grant universities should be directed?

(2) What innovations are needed to ensure an effective long-term response?

Several broad social issues come immediately to mind:

  • · Climate Change – How will climate change affect the productivity and viability of communities in our individual states? This issue is at least as important to the health of our society as was agricultural production in the early 20th century.
  • Globalization – What must our communities to do remain economically viable in a global community?
  • · Innovation – Given the move of heavy industry off shore, we need to create the capacity for innovation at the community level so that new ideas can take root and grow locally.
  • · Inter-Cultural Education – Increasingly, immigration will be replaced by networking that allows people to stay in their home countries while participating in the American economy. The United States will be less of a nation of immigrants and more of a networked culture, with each of us working with people from different cultures on a regular basis. Just as we created a K-12 education sector to respond to immigration, we now need schools that will produce local citizens who can participate in this new environment.

What other issues should the land grant university address in order to be relevant to the Information Society? What radical innovations are needed today?