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Bring back home economics classes

We live in a world of unimaginable technology, yet our children are no longer learning basic life skills. It is a rare teenager or 20-something year-old who can cook a nutritious meal, hem a pair of pants or sew on a button.  There is an interesting and ironic history of how home economics classes got started in the U.S, as well as the reason they fell out of popularity.

Home economics history

A group of educators including Melvil Dewey, of the Dewey decimal system, and Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards got together in 1899 to find ways to use science and technology to improve American life. Out of their conference the American Home Economics Association (AHEA) was founded and Ellen Richards became the first president of the organization. Ellen was no lightweight. She was the first woman in America to be accepted to any college of science and technology. She was in fact accepted to MIT under the following condition: "it being understood that her admission did not establish a precedent for the general admission of females."

 

Helen and the AHEA successfully lobbied Congress to fund home economics classes. She also was instrumental in starting the first public lunch program in Boston where nutritionally sound meals were provided "to children who would not normally have them." Helen's work was also behind the first effort to establish water quality standards in America and the establishment of the first sewage treatment plant. In a nutshell this very forward thinking, scientifically minded and socially progressive woman did a lot of great things that we still benefit from today.

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Fast forward to the 60's and 70's

My generation of women were the last to get a formal home economics education. And we did so grudgingly. With the feminist movement, the last thing we wanted to do was learn to be a housewife. We had places to go and things to do. We thought the same way about typing class. I vividly remember telling my high school typing instructor, "I don't need to learn to type because I'm not going to become a secretary." Famous last words; what am I doing right this minute?

 

As much as we resented our home economics class at the time, we learned a thing or two that has stuck with us and helped us through everyday life. Projects like making a batch of cookies or sewing a drawstring bag were sparks that captured our interest and taught us the first skills about being self-reliant and managing our own lives. No, cookies don't equal a healthy diet, but baking cookies may be the carrot that gets kids into the kitchen, and getting into the kitchen is the first important step in learning how to feed yourself. Only once kids are in the kitchen can we meaningfully begin to talk about good nutrition.

The irony

Isn't it interesting that in the name of feminism and progress, we turned our back on a life skills program that was created by a most amazing feminist who based her teachings on science?

We need home economics more than ever

It is no coincidence that when society started to demean home economic skills, we also bought into the concept of prepackaged, processed and fast foods. As Americans left the kitchen, we also got fatter and sicker.

 

We need to return to the kitchen. Not just woman, but everyone needs to know the basics of feeding and caring for themselves. From a social policy standpoint, can you imagine if all of our children learned the following skills:

  • How to feed themselves nutritiously and economically
  • How to repair clothing, sew on buttons and mend torn seams
  • How to plant and sustain a simple garden
  • How to create and live on a budget
  • How to balance a checkbook
  • How to start a savings plan that will someday allow you to retire
  • How to live more sustainably

We have come full circle and the need for teaching the basic life skills of home economics is more important than ever. Kid by kid, meal by meal, and skill by skill we can create a healthier and more sustainable nation.

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