Home Economics: The Reckoning

posted in: Paean 1
Women's cookery class, Ohio State Normal College, 1913. Photo: Wikipedia
Women’s cookery class, Ohio State Normal College, 1913. Photo: Wikipedia

When I was in junior high school, I experienced home economics class twice: the first section was for one half of one term my seventh grade year, the second for one half of one term in my eighth. That is not a lot of home ec, or “family and consumer science.” When you consider where I’m from — a rural farming community with a population of 5,000, a town with a county fair and a noon whistle — this may surprise you. Because when you look at the definition of home economics, what you find seems to square with the basic values of small town America:

“[Home economics is] the profession and field of study that deals with the economics and management of the home and community. The field deals with the relationship between individuals, families, and communities, and the environment in which they live.”

Or maybe that’s not “small town America” stuff; maybe that’s everyone-on-the-planet stuff. What could be more important than studying how to make and manage a good home? That seems foundational to me. And ’tis a noble pursuit to examine “relationships between individuals, families, and communities, and the environment in which they live.” Am I missing something? This all sounds like good stuff to teach a kid.

But in the 1990s — at least in my town — home economics curriculum was usurped by keyboarding and computer classes and scarcely any home ec programming survived. The kids didn’t choose to swap out home ec; the parents and the school board did. In order to compete in an increasingly tech-driven world, the adults felt kids needed to learn computers and they weren’t wrong. So unless you were in 4-H or FHA (Future Homemakers of America) you learned precious little in school about managing a household and a whole heck of a lot about the proper storage of floppy discs. I remember three projects we did in home ec: we made drawstring bag, we learned how to sign a check, and we made chocolate chip cookies.

I think deleting 90% of home ec curriculum was a mistake.* “Family and consumer science” is an umbrella under which so many crucial life skills could be taught. My mom did a great job raising us, but if I’d had more instruction in financial management I might’ve avoided being suckered into that college freshman credit card. I would’ve loved to learn how to bake bread, how to organize a community meeting, how to get a marriage license.

With more home ec, my classmates and I might’ve learned how to avoid the schemes of the grocery store designers (junk food at eye-level, dairy stocked at the furthest point from the door so you have to walk through the junk food to get to what you actually need); we might’ve gone on a field trip to a working farm, to an office building, to the community playhouse in Des Moines. We could’ve learned how not to yell at the customer service agent when we’re frustrated on the phone. I would’ve rolled my eyes like any dutiful junior- or high-schooler while all this was being taught, but I would’ve appreciated it later like I appreciate the rest of my public school education.

Ours is a service-oriented culture. We are no longer the manufacturing nation we once were. Rather than this being a reason to jettison home ec under the assumption that the world has changed so drastically “household” knowledge is at best old-fashioned and at worst obsolete, I see the shift as a reason to fiercely support home economics in schools: it’s a brave new world and we need to learn how to live in it. Besides: when you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, the hot answers these days include chef, fashion designer, and business owner. Looks like cooking, sewing, and economics to me. Does it look like that to you?

If you sat with your mom and dad and absorbed their excellent time management skills, great. If you worked at a job from an early age and learned cash registers and bank drops, awesome. If your nanna baked cinnamon rolls and you became a mean baker by osmosis, wonderful. But many, many kids out there do not get this kind of teaching at home. It makes all the sense in the world that home economics classes in schools can close the gap on essential life skills like these. Even those who do come from a “civic duty” kind of family can always expand their knowledge of life skills. As a woman with no children I’m not sure how to affect change regarding this issue, but I feel passionately about it. Perhaps I’ll put a colander on my head and march through the streets banging a pot with a ruler, shouting:

“Viva la spatula! Viva la spreadsheet! Viva la home economics!”

*There are school systems out there with current, even robust, home ec curriculum. In my experience talking to many thousands of people across the US about this topic, however, it appears that home ec has dried up or completely disappeared in most regions.