Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Home Economics Revival?


Home Economics Class--on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1951. Today, for the most part, only private Christian schools have home economics as part of the curriculum.

Although couched in politically correct terms--as a means of fighting obesity--the revival of home economics classes as part of children's education was posited by Helen Zoe Veit in an article in the New York Times September 5. Veit feels compelled in her first sentence to acknowledge that such a proposal goes against the grain of feminism, stating this untruth right off the bat: "Nobody likes home economics."

The basis for Veit's proposal rings true though: "Reviving the program, and its original premises — that producing good, nutritious food is profoundly important, that it takes study and practice, and that it can and should be taught through the public school system — could help us in the fight against obesity and chronic disease today. The home economics movement was founded on the belief that housework and food preparation were important subjects that should be studied scientifically."

Who can argue with this, except those who feel that cooking, housework, cleaning, and other household tasks are inherently demeaning to women and should be performed by presumably paid (mostly female--oops!) servants.

Veit does admonish though that "today we remember only the stereotypes about home economics, while forgetting the movement’s crucial lessons on healthy eating and cooking. Too many Americans simply don’t know how to cook. Our diets, consisting of highly processed foods made cheaply outside the home thanks to subsidized corn and soy, have contributed to an enormous health crisis."

I believe she is right, as the effects of a diet of constantly eating restaurant food, take-out, and fast food quickly lead to body ballooning. Restaurants and processed food manufacturers have the incentive to lard their food with fats, sugar, and salt, because it is an easy pleasure for the palate and they want you to come back for more. That is not the basis for home cooking--you are already there! Here the goals are great nutrition and great taste at lower prices. Home economics classes can give both women and girls the basic rudiments of how and what to cook. Today Veit's proposal was seconded in the Food and Think blog of the Smithsonian magazine and noted by National Public Radio and The Atlantic.

Catharine Esther Beecher, who believed the education of women was crucial to the survival of the republic.

Home economics has a proud tradition among women in the United States and was first launched by Catharine Esther Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe), whose Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841) became the domestic bible for women in the settled areas of the United States. For Beecher the proper management of the home was intrinsic to the proper rearing and education of children.

Today, women of all ages can fruitfully turn to Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson (1999). Mrs. Mendelson presents clear and exceedingly helpful discussions of everything from making a bed to nutrition. Offering thorough guidance and suggestions, she never lectures. This book is a great gift for any young woman starting out in her own home or apartment or for a bride.

Cheryl Mendelson's Home Comforts. She won her way to my heart when she reported that she had held many jobs in her life, including being an attorney, but found performing domestic duties in her home the most gratifying.

But back to home economics classes. In my high school, the girls took home economics, while the boys took shop. The boys always returned from shop to academic classes with a happy sense of accomplishment. Probably we girls less so. Home economics was not taught from the height of this topic down to gritty details, but was taught like First Aid 1: clear instructions only for the most vital things you need to know. It was assumed you already knew why you needed such a course; there was no motivational excitement on the part of the teacher. I think it could be a lot more fun. Nevertheless, I took great satisfaction in making a summer skirt, and the experience of making something wearable prompted me to sew many of my own clothes during my high school years.

Ms. Veit has my gratitude for bringing up such an audacious proposal as the revival of home economics as part of the curricula in public schools. I suspect though that for many, fighting obesity is merely the calling card for ideas of reviving home economics classes and good practices. Fast food and eating out is expensive and goes out of the budgetary ballpark in hard times. Now is the time to learn to cook!

1 comment:

Nan said...

What a brilliant post, and idea! That vision of having other women take care of one's house and children is so strange to me. Why have either one if we don't want to take care. Even when I was a girl and took home ec, my father complained that the schools didn't teach courses like how to use a cash register. The practical things in life are so important. And just as home ec has been cut so has shop. Both are needed desperately, I think.