Where does “legitimate” knowledge come from? An answer from Extension’s future

By jenjensen | March 10, 2014

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

By Craig Hassel, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist in Food and Nutrition, University of Minnesota

St. Paul, MN (February 24, 2064) – As we take time in 2064 to look back at our 150 year history of Cooperative Extension we are reminded once again of the valuable lessons derived through experience. As difficult as it is for us to imagine now, there was a time when Extension was not considered the source of leadership for the land-grant research university that it now represents.

Fifty years ago, in 2014, it was the epoch of knowledge dependency, a time when public engagement meant delivery to passive recipients, when active participation simply meant attendance. This was still the era of the expert, a time when “legitimate” knowledge meant academic knowledge, produced and sanctioned through professional research. Human knowledge from non-academic origins was dismissed or disregarded unless it passed muster according to the methods deemed acceptable by experts. Unfortunately, the societal costs of this kind of knowledge gatekeeping were largely invisible to our professional ancestors.

Wild Rice

Each year three University of Minnesota classes travel to White Earth Indian Reservation in Northern Minnesota to participate in a traditional ricing camp taught and hosted by the White Earth community. Elders and cultural leaders teach the students to harvest and process manoomin (wild rice) and share Anishinaabeg traditions, stories and prophecies that offer a glimpse into traditional cultural lifeways and values. The sacred relationship between manoomin and the Anishinaabe people is stressed. Photo courtesy of Craig Hassel.

Of course now, with 20/20 hindsight, we see clearly how as land grant research universities we almost became victims of our own success. Many point to the trajectory of scientific advancement that led to mistakes of technocracy, to blind spots in our understanding of knowledge construction.

Successes in science, medicine, and technology conferred authority to professionals to define nature and determine what constitutes reliable knowledge of the world. Professionals soon monopolized this authority, ignoring or dismissing the capacity of citizens as creators of human knowledge. The false sense of entitlement was institutionalized as a professional role as arbiter of truth, a role in which professionals presumed themselves to be “objective”, “neutral” and “unbiased”. Many inherited without question the belief that legitimate human knowledge can only arise through methods accepted as valid by academic professionals. 

Professional security and distinction was conflated with public mission. Congruence between faculty interests and societal interests went unquestioned and was simply presumed.

The unsustainable societal costs of this mindset were the opportunity costs of excluding and subjugating society’s own knowledge assets.  For example, American Indian people have always had their own forms of science, as described in Gregory Cajete’s book Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence.  “Native science” brought forth sophisticated systems of agriculture that have given us beans, corn, potatoes, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, and more than 20 other foods commonly used and taken for granted today.  Of the more than 30,000 types of vascular plants found in North America, American Indians have used 2,874 as medicines; 1,886 as foods; 492 as fibers for weaving, baskets, or building materials; and 230 as dyes. All told, they have found a useful purpose for nearly 4,000 types of plants (see Daniel Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotany). Yet because indigenous forms of inquiry were not aligned with the norms of “Western science” originating in Europe, indigenous contributions to agriculture and health were seldom, if ever, acknowledged by professionals.

Craig Hassel with the late Paul Schultz, a traditional healer, member of the Ojibwe Nation Mississippi Band, Bear Clan and Chair of the White Earth Tribal and Community College Board of Trustees. Along with Joe LaGarde, Paul would confront the University of Minnesota in its attempts to map the wild rice genome and further efforts domesticate the plant. Community efforts to protect the sacred manoomin in its natural form represent a cultural collision with Eurocentric land-grant values from which much can be earned. Photo courtesy of Craig Hassel.

Craig Hassel with the late Paul Schultz, a traditional healer, member of the Ojibwe Nation Mississippi Band, Bear Clan and Chair of the White Earth Tribal and Community College Board of Trustees. Along with Joe LaGarde, Paul confronted the University of Minnesota in its attempts to map the wild rice genome. Community efforts to protect the sacred manoomin in its natural form represent a cultural collision with Eurocentric values from which much can be earned. Photo courtesy of Craig Hassel.

As late as 2014, the year marking Extension’s 100th anniversary, many forms of human knowledge—such as experiential, traditional, ancestral, or tacit knowledge—were disregarded by experts trained within narrow and sheltered microworlds of specialized disciplines.  In the instances where other forms of human knowledge were recognized, they were either appropriated and claimed by professionals, dismissed as unscientific, or held in abeyance until they could be appropriately tested using the methods deemed appropriate by knowledgeable experts.

Even among many of us within Cooperative Extension, who were supposedly positioned to keep a pulse on such matters, we made the mistake of allowing our attention to be consumed by the ethos of technical rationality.  We were enamored by our epistemological core, the highly skilled professionals of the land-grant research university, specialized within narrow disciplinary domains and steeped within the prevailing ethos of technical solutions.  Cooperative Extension faculty were increasingly consumed by like-minded enclaves of expertise, pointing to and drawing from disciplinary expertise as our “comparative advantage”.

This was a time when our provincial ideas about knowledge were seen as a process of safeguarding academic integrity, not as subjugating human capacity.  Although this arrangement did much to facilitate knowledge accumulation within disciplines, many in society would inevitably come to see academic work as becoming less relevant to complex problems or increasingly driven, co-opted, or enslaved by special (financial) interests, as with GMO technologies.

A Changing World Makes Room for Community Knowledge

In many ways we sheltered ourselves from the dynamics a rapidly changing world.  The boundaries between science and society—once imagined as the robust demarcation of credible expert from uninformed layperson—were becoming interpenetrated and permeated by one another.

Technology facilitated near-instantaneous subject matter availability and transfer. Limitations of technocratic approaches became increasingly transparent. Demographic changes and globalization fueled ever-greater openness and intercultural interaction. The psychological safety of European cultural norms and traditions were becoming increasingly uncertain and subject to change.  Older cultures once invisible or subterranean were not melting into oblivion but now reasserting, reaffirming, and strengthening themselves, becoming increasingly vital knowledge resources for communities facing contemporary problems.  Non-academic forms of knowledge long-neglected or dismissed by professionals were becoming more visible and beginning to inform and broaden the understanding and interpretation of academic disciplines.

By about 2020, it was apparent that the costs of the “professional as knowledge gatekeeper” function could no longer be accepted by a society consumed by inflating external costs.  Not only did this practice subjugate or subvert many human knowledge assets, the limitations of technocratic approaches in addressing complex societal problems of health and environment were by this time widely recognized.  Ironically, the same dynamics so stubbornly disregarded for the sake of preserving entrenched 20th century assumptions became the very elements that would re-make the land-grant universities, especially and most dramatically for Cooperative Extension.

A dynamic pluralism of knowledge in society would require a degree of openness around what knowledge counts, what is important to know, and how claims to knowledge are validated.  Academic disciplines could no longer maintain their status as epistemologically closed systems with monopoly authority.

The key was a tradeoff that would open the doorway of transformation.  The bottom line was a trade of comfort for opportunity.  The deal traded away the certainty of long-standing knowledge privileges, including outgrown delusions of a knowledge monopoly and its attendant professional hubris and isolation.  In exchange, academic professionals would open themselves to a vast field of human knowledge previously unrecognized, a varied topography of many different knowledge systems and much larger field of possibility. By first recognizing, then questioning powerful subconscious assumptions, academic professionals would begin to see greater horizons of possibility.

Slowly at first, the self-imposed shackles were cast aside, followed by a great wave of professional transformation. The ability to understand the interwoven relationships between culture and knowledge at greater sub-conscious depths opened many vantage points from which to see and consider complex societal problems differently and a multitude of perspectives through which to explore them differently.

Cooperative Extension Leads the Way

This shift had dramatic and transformative implications for Cooperative Extension faculty, who became leaders in this newly emerging developmental craft.  No longer would Extension faculty be relegated to the knowledge missionary role: packaging, retailing and delivering knowledge dogmatically proclaimed as uniquely legitimate, objective, and value neutral.

Cooperative Extension faculty took leadership in working with academic professionals, creating space and building the trust needed for interfacing academic and non-academic forms of human knowledge.  Trust-building, deep listening, cognitive frame-shifting, open-mindedness, fair-mindedness, self-reflective and critical thinking were key skills and dispositions in learning from community how to navigate the sometimes challenging cultural terrain and complex knowledge commons.

Cooperative Extension was becoming the central resource for the land-grant research university. They became institutional leaders in intercultural knowledge construction where all knowledge assets of society were welcomed, exchanged, and respected.  Land-grant research universities were once again owned by the public, serving the commonwealth.  While special interests continued their access as always, the extent of these relationships were mitigated by greater public access and increasing public support.  From this time forward, scientists would no longer naively see their work as direct description of reality, but would come to see their work as saturated with its own implicit cultural values, a particular way of approaching nature and questioning reality.

Craig A. Hassel is an Associate Professor and Extension Specialist in the Department of Food Science & Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul. He explores issues of food and health with cultural communities having experienced marginalization and/or subjugation by academic professionals.  His cross-cultural engagement work repositions scientific inquiry alongside ancient, ancestral and experiential understandings of food and health as a model of public engagement scholarship.


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