« Cultural Awareness | Main | Academia and traditional cultural communities »

Narratives of the land-grant university

Scott Peters has written an interesting paper, "Changing the Story About Higher Education's Public Purposes and Work: Land-Grants, Liberty, and the Little Country Theater", #6 in Imagining America series of position papers on "Foreseeable Futures". The paper is based on Peters's keynote address for the joint Imagining America/Outreach Scholarship conference in 2006. An abstract is available at http://www.ia.umich.edu/position-papers.html.

Peters, on the faculty at Cornell University, makes a compelling case that the history of the relations between land-grant universities and the rural communities they have served is much more complicated than we generally realize. He makes that case through three contrasting stories, or narratives.

According to the "heroic meta-narrative",

… land-grant colleges democratized higher education in three ways: first, by providing the common people with access to a college education… ; second, by expanding and equalizing the curriculum to make the professions of the common people … as worthy of study as the classics and the professions of elites; and third, by not only developing but also actively extending new scientific knowledge, technologies, and expertise. … [E]ach of these purposes is viewed as serving mainly … technical, economic, and material ends.

In the "tragic counter-narrative",

… most farmers play roles as futile resistors or hapless victims [of the modernization of agriculture in service of a "cheap food" policy], while land-grant faculty are cast as technocratic experts, colonizers, and oppressors. This is not a story of the "democratization" of higher learning, but rather its opposite.

Noting that both of these narratives have significant short-comings, Peters constructs a third, "prophetic counter-narrative", based on the writings of Liberty Hyde Bailey (founding Director of Cornell's agricultural extension program in 1894, and later Dean of Cornell's College of Agriculture). Peters points out that Bailey, who is viewed either as hero or villain in the first two narratives, had a much broader view of the public purposes of land-grant colleges.

… Bailey viewed the pursuit of a "self-sustaining" agriculture as a multi-dimensional project that had technical, scientific, moral, economic, cultural, political, and even spiritual dimensions. According to him, this project would both require and result in the development of a new rural civilization "worthy of the best American ideals" [not just material well-being, but also] the democratic ideal (and practice) of self-rule, through which the common people, functioning as citizens, work as cooperative producers not only of the commonwealth, but also of the culture and politics of their own neighborhoods and communities.

There's lots more to Peters's paper, which deserves wide reading and discussion. But it's obvious that the prophetic counter-narrative, assuming it moves forward, is a perfect example of what we hope public engagement will achieve.