Op-Ed: Bring Back Home Economics (Kind Of)
I learned how tax brackets work through studying for the PSAT.
Yes, I was 15 years old and had no idea how our tax system worked. And yes, I did just publicly divulge that embarrassing piece of information for the sake of my argument. Maybe I am just a sheltered and naïve anomaly, but many of my peers are equally, if not more, clueless about filing taxes, paying mortgages, feeding ourselves, and other things we will have to manage on our own in just a few years’ time.
“I think Edgemont has prepared me very thoroughly for the academic aspects of my life and higher education, but I think that this focus on academics, extracurriculars, and research leaves no time for learning basic life skills."
As Campus Editor-in-Chief and current senior Nishta Nandakumar says, “I think Edgemont has prepared me very thoroughly for the academic aspects of my life and higher education, but I think that this focus on academics, extracurriculars, and research leaves no time for learning basic life skills. For example, food is a staple of any Indian home, but I find the disparity between Edgemont students and my Indian family friends (who live elsewhere) stark—while most of us [Edgemont students] don’t even have the time to think about learning family recipes, so many of my other friends can form a connection to our heritage by making these dishes often.” As another anonymous senior has said, somewhat facetiously, “I don't even know how to use Tide Pods beyond eating them.”
Home Economics is “a subject or class that teaches skills which are useful in the home.”
Now please don’t misunderstand, the purpose of this article is not to put down other important subjects taught at EHS, but rather to advocate for the teaching of one more: Home Ec. According to Merriam Webster, Home Ec, short for Home Economics, is “a subject or class that teaches skills which are useful in the home.” Home Economics was once a staple of American high schools, but it has all but disappeared in recent years.
The tale of Home Economics begins 160 years ago when the Morrill Act was passed in 1862. The act granted every state land to establish agriculture and mechanics colleges that were open to all qualified students, including women, but stole land from Indigenous tribes and pushed them off their ancestral lands in order to do so. Well-known examples of colleges founded through the Morrill Act include Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Texas A&M. The Morrill Act required these land-grant colleges to “foster research and instruction in practical areas of endeavor.”
By 1917, Congress decided that national vocational education was desperately needed. In response, the Smith-Hughes Act was passed, which provided federal funds to state governments in order to promote the teaching of vocational education in high schools. Many advocates of Home Ec in this era “hoped to create new professions that were connected to the elements of home life and imagined that women, in particular, would be drawn to these professions, creating new opportunities outside the home.” According to Puccinelli, “this act undermined and codified gender roles in the field of home economics.”
“A new toaster was always welcome, but new gender roles were not.”
In the 1950s, Home Economics and domestic spheres as a whole represented a world of traditional values untouched by modernity. As Elias writes, “A new toaster was always welcome, but new gender roles were not.” When the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s came about as a response to the hyper-domesticity of the previous decades, many women began shedding their previous confines as housewives and re-entered the workforce. Thus, there was a shift away from Home Ec and other domestic spheres.
“In New York, our state academic credits were upped, which made it difficult for non-academic credit earning classes, such as Home Ec, to get funding, so eventually they just got squeezed out.”
In today’s high schools, Home Economics (or Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS), as it is now known) is dwindling. According to Mr. Rosenberg, a History teacher at EHS who was once a Home Ec student himself, “In New York, our state academic credits were upped, which made it difficult for non-academic credit earning classes, such as Home Ec, to get funding, so eventually they just got squeezed out.” This seems to be the trend not only in New York, but across the nation. As NPR writes, “In 2012 there were only 3.5 million students enrolled in FCS secondary programs, a decrease of 38 percent over a decade. Many blame an ongoing shortage of qualified teachers, while others worry that continued focus on testing, along with budget slashing, will make it hard to bring FCS electives back into the curriculum.”
The teaching of Home Economics has often been criticized as outdated and anti-feminist. When Home Ec was first established, its aim was to educate women on how to manage a household. Essentially, it told women that their sole job was to manage the home and manage it well. Home Ec was frequently used to cement a Cult of Domesticity, especially in the 1950s and 60s, a period with which it is often associated.
However, a modern iteration of Home Ec that could be taught at Edgemont would be mandatory for all students, akin to Health or P.E. The basic household skills that Home Ec teaches, such as cooking and basic home repairs, are skills that everyone in the 21st century must know in order to be independent, capable adults. It’s difficult to boil down the nuances of modern-day intersectional feminism into a mere sentence, but essentially, it strives for “social, economic, and political equality of the sexes.” Intersectional feminists value equal opportunities for all people, no matter their gender, sexual orientation, race, etc.
All students deserve the opportunity to learn basic skills, but not all students have parents who have the time and are capable of teaching them such information. Even students who do have parents that are able to teach these skills might benefit from a daily, systematic class as opposed to learning these skills in ad-hoc fashion. After all, many of these skills require repetition. In addition, the entire reason why parents send children to schools in the first place is that teachers who have devoted their lives to a certain subject are often more qualified to teach a subject than parents are. If we don’t teach basic life skills in school, we are setting students up to struggle as adults, no matter their profession. As feminists advocate for equal opportunities for all, I would argue that requiring Home Ec to be taught to all students, thus providing them all the opportunity to learn important life skills, is wholly in keeping with the spirit of feminism.
Though the problematic history of Home Economics cannot be denied, the practical life skills that Home Ec teaches should not be disregarded. EHS is renowned for preparing its students well for rigorous college courses and ambitious careers, yet we should not forget the importance of knowing how to properly feed ourselves or balance a budget. I understand the difficulties of implementing an entirely new mandatory course at EHS, but integrating home management skills into pre-existing classes that all students must take such as Health is one solution. By doing this, we can ensure that EHS students don’t graduate “book smart but street dumb,” as I often jokingly put it. Through the teaching of Home Ec, every single student who walks through Edgemont’s breezeways would be equipped with the practical skills needed to thrive on their own in college and beyond.