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The Value of Home Economics

by Chappell Ellison

Sep 16, 2011

A curriculum once criticized for gender stereotypes and societal irrelevance is gaining traction again as the youth grapple with new domestic dangers.

My grandmother cooked her first soufflé in her home economics class. For my mother, a costume designer, it's where she learned how to sew. But by the time I made it to high school, home economics was an ancient relic that took place in a dusty classroom where social misfits learned to make queso from Velveeta. Home economics has a lot to fight against in our school systems: limited budgets, gender stereotyping, and a huge uncoolness factor. Despite such obstacles, does home economics still have a necessary societal value? In a recent post on the Smithsonian's blog, Jesse Rhodes argues that home ec classes might be a key in fighting obesity and a reexamination of what it means to live resourcefully. With today's shaky economy and grocery stores that have become caloric minefields, a revamped home economics program is needed more than ever. Home economics began as a reaction to a change in shopping habits. "By the late nineteenth century, American women had become consumers rather than producers of many household items, including food and clothing," reports Cornell on the history of home economics. "As a result, home economists… promoted the idea that women needed to be educated about purchasing decisions." At first, home economics classes provided invaluable information about health and hygiene. But by the 1960s, these principles were no longer the basis of an innovative classroom. Outdated and stale, home ec became the antiquated, gender-stereotyped program barely scraping by in most American schools today. "My first brush with home economics, as a seventh grader in a North Carolina public school two decades ago, was grim," wrote Helen Zoe Veit in an op-ed for The New York Times. "The most sophisticated cooking we did was opening a can of pre-made biscuit dough, sticking our thumbs in the center of each raw biscuit to make a hole, and then handing them over to the teacher, who dipped them in hot grease to make doughnuts."

Today, our grocery stores would hardly be recognizable to our grandparents. Our clothing, so often made quick 'n' cheap, falls apart after minimal wear. Home economics could be a valuable program to help young adults navigate today's challenges. There is hope — in California, the only state that still refers to its domestic science program as home ec, the program has evolved to suit more modern needs. With subjects like International Foods, Catering, or Food Service and Hospitality, California's home economics program is gaining in popularity. "I think programs like [those on] the Food Network have made it more trendy," Patricia Scott, a home economics teacher told The Los Angeles Times. Further, NPR recently delved into the nostalgia movement, a trend that has female authors encouraging readers to hearken back to the good ol' days when we thrived on the bare minimum and found satisfaction in being frugal. "All of these [nostalgia] books talk about being resourceful, and that luxury doesn't involve money," says Sally Singer, editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine. "It's about knowing how to sew a patch on a garment or knowing how to darn a sock." I was beyond lucky, coming from a home with a mother who cooked healthy, square meals for the entire family. But sadly, not every child has such a positive home life and only learns how to grab junk food rather than chop vegetables. Home economics programs, much like art and music, are among the earliest victims when school districts attempt to stave off a budgetary crisis. Even if they aren't cut from educational programs entirely, home economics is often underfunded. But just as young adults should be educated about the hazards of drugs, alcohol and sex, they should also have an understanding of healthy eating and home management — basic information that transcends gender, wealth and ethnicity.

Food on the Blog | Vintage Housewares Category

Chappell Ellison

Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.