US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Adding home economics to the class schedule

By Meghan Murphy-Gill | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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An Op-Ed in the New York Times proposes a solution to combating the obesity epidemic in the United States: re-instating home economics classes in public schools. Noting the stereotypes a home ec class usually conjures up (old maid fuddy duddies teaching the art of sewing a throw pillow), the author notes its history:

The home economics movement was founded on the belief that housework and food preparation were important subjects that should be studied scientifically. The first classes occurred in the agricultural and technical colleges that were built from the proceeds of federal land grants in the 1860s. By the early 20th century, and increasingly after the passage of federal legislation like the 1917 Smith-Hughes Act, which provided support for the training of teachers in home economics, there were classes in elementary, middle and high schools across the country. When universities excluded women from most departments, home economics was a back door into higher education. Once there, women worked hard to make the case that “domestic science” was in fact a scientific discipline, linked to chemistry, biology and bacteriology.

Indeed, in the early 20th century, home economics was a serious subject. When few understood germ theory and almost no one had heard of vitamins, home economics classes offered vital information about washing hands regularly, eating fruits and vegetables and not feeding coffee to babies, among other lessons.

Having seen too many babies sucking on bottles or sippy-cups of corn-syrup based “juice” (or worse, caffeine-laden Mountain Dew!), I’m in support of required home ec courses if the only thing they teach someday parents, aunts, and uncles not to feed Hi-C, Vitamin Water, or whatever other sugary, dye-heavy soft drinks and beverages to babies.

Home economics classes begin to lose popularity when “the discipline’s basic tenets about health and hygiene became so thoroughly popularized that they came to seem like common sense. As a result, their early proponents came to look like old maids stating the obvious instead of the innovators and scientists that many of them really were. Increasingly, home economists’ eagerness to dispense advice on everything from eating to sleeping to posture galled.”

I think the author is on to something. I’ve been somewhat of an advocate among my friends and family for cooking at home, not just spaghetti and jars of sauce, but things they might never have considered possible to come from their kitchen: mayonnaise, ice cream, bread. While the author suggests it help our country fight our food-related weight and health problems (by empowering and encouraging people to cook their own food), slowing down and spending time in the kitchen has enormous spiritual benefits. Likewise, home ec classes could also help to restore some of the old-fashioned ingenuity and self-reliance we Americans pride ourselves on. (If you’re wondering if we need such restoration, just ask a teenager or young adult to lose the GPS and navigate around an unfamiliar town using a crusty old map.)