1949 NY Ag Extension Services to Today’s Techies: Step Up Your Game

As part of learning more about the history of Agricultural Extension Services, I’ve been reading Ruby Green Smith’s The People’s Colleges: A History of the New York State Extension Service in Cornell University and the State, 1876-1948. Cornell University was a leader in Agricultural Extension Services. Although the national program wasn’t created until 1914, Cornell University started doing extension work way back in in the 1870s. Writing in 1949, Smith says that “the most common definition” of what Cornell did is that it took the knowledge and research of academia and “translated it into life through its application to farms, homes, industries, and communities.” [p.xxx] But the actual history was a complex dance between top-down and bottom-up.

A home Bureau leader, Grace Austin Powell, wrote: “the Home Bureau is a door in the walls of a home — a door swinging both ways. It swings in word so that from the State Colleges instruction and inspiration may enter; it swings outward so that from the home may come the rich experience and wisdom which years of home life have given to many a wife and mother.”
There is vigorous reciprocity in the Extension Service because it is with the people, as well as “of the people, by the people, and for the people” it not only carries knowledge from the State Colleges to the people, but it also works in reverse: it carries from the people to their State Colleges practical knowledge whose workability has been tested on farms, in industry, in homes, and in communities. In ideal extension work, science and art meet life and practice…. Thus the Extension Service develops not only better agriculture, industries, homes, and communities, but better colleges.” [p. xxxi]

That sounds pretty interesting, and there are certainly lessons we can learn from their experience. But it isn’t that far from some traditional progressive thinking about how to democratize tech. What blew me away was the next paragraph:

In 1948, more than 32,000 trained volunteer local leaders and community committee members supplemented the agricultural and home economics work of the salaried staff of 383.” [pp. xxxi-xxxii]

Let’s say that again: in 1948, New York Agricultural Extension Services had 32,000 volunteer local leaders. Not members. Leaders.

If you think the idea of making jobs/work in emerging tech accessible to many people in every community seems like a pipe dream, that’s one reason why. I’m not saying we need that many volunteer leaders — or that many paid staff — to succeed. But it’s a useful reminder how much we are used to thinking on a small scale.