Is home economics still relevant in the 21st century? — Observatory


Often, when we hear about home economics, people think of cooking classes or sewing classes and attribute them exclusively to women. However, many do not know everything behind this field of study and its impact on the lives of students.

This study appeared in the late 1800s and its creation is credited to Ellen Swallow Richards, the first woman to be admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She was a chemistry teacher at this institution and aimed to promote science education among women.

Early home economics courses incorporated various scientific disciplines as they sought to professionalize women’s work and make it more efficient to free them from household chores. They sought to give women time to do more than just cook and clean, such as focus on their education. Home economics was designed to enable more women to go to college, as they were taught to take better care of their homes and families.

Although many see the field as sexist, home economics was no stranger to feminist principles, quite the contrary. In 1899, Richards brought together progressive women to develop the course curriculum, which became an organized study through the efforts of Ellen Swallow Richards and Catherine Beecher. They founded the American Home Economics Association (now known as the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences). The association held annual meetings to lobby the government to raise more funds. Richards served as president of the association until her death in 1911.

Farmers’ wives

Ellen Swallow Richards and Catherine Beecher weren’t the only women to promote domestic education. In 1862, the Morrill Act led to the creation of universities allowing thousands of farmers to follow a higher education. Many of these universities had home economics courses for women. The goal was for them to manage the house better so that they could help with the agricultural work.

Among those who taught the women were Martha Van Rensselaer, a teacher, and Flora Rose, a nutritionist, who taught at New York State College of Agriculture, part of Cornell University. In 1912, they were appointed co-directors of the home economics department within this institution.

Unlike the scientific orientation of Ellen Swallow Richards’ courses, those at Cornell were more experimental. The students received a real baby from an orphanage and the women learned the latest theories on childrearing. At the end of the school year, infants were given up for adoption. By 1950, more than 50 institutions of higher learning were incorporating “practice babies” into their curricula.

The Seven Areas of Home Economics

To ensure that students learn to better manage their homes and families, Richards and Beecher divide the study of home economics into seven areas: cooking, child development, education and community, home management and design, sewing and textiles, budget and economy, and health and hygiene.

  • Cooking: This section is a fundamental part of household chores, so it was important to teach women how to prepare balanced meals based on nutritional principles. In addition, they learned about safety and how to store food to prevent disease. SIn addition, they learned to set the table and organize meals for their family and friends.

  • Child development: Teachers assign babies from orphanages to students. The goal was to learn about child development and respond appropriately to children at their various developmental stages.

  • Community education and awareness: Because the responsibility for raising children fell on mothers, they learned the best ways to teach children to read or learn basic math before they entered school. The children also learned moral and ethical lessons to develop community awareness.

  • Home management and design: In this section, the essential design elements for home decoration and the best ways to maintain order in the house have been taught. Topics included cleanliness and organization, as these were household chores assigned exclusively to women.

  • Sewing and textiles: Sewing was necessary for many women. This allowed them to make clothes for themselves and their children and repair them when necessary to make them last longer. The students learned everything from how to follow a pattern to understanding the best fabric material to buy.

  • Budget and economy: A key skill in maintaining an effective house for women was creating an account. It was customary for women then, and often now, to do all the shopping for the family, so it was crucial for them to learn how to use money wisely.

  • Health and hygiene: It is also fundamental that young women know how to prepare and store food to prevent illnesses learned to care for the sick well. From sanitary procedures to their diet, they had to understand how to care for the sick in a time of common illnesses.

For the return of the domestic economy

Many students leave home for the “real world” at 17 or 18 while studying at a university in another city. Glorified at being independent, they soon realize they don’t know how to cook nutritious meals or create a monthly budget, let alone sew on a button or care for their sick companion.

In addition to teaching students to solve trigonometry problems, it is essential to instill useful knowledge in women and men that they may need in their daily lives. According to a study on home economics and family and consumer sciences, it is not necessary to reduce class hours to include home economics in the school curriculum. Reading, math and writing can be incorporated into lessons on nutrition or budgeting, for example.

In his opinion piece for the New York Times, Helen Zoe Veit, associate professor of history at Michigan State University, notes that “over time, the basic tenets of the discipline of health and hygiene became so pervasive that they looked like common sense. As a result, early proponents (of home economics) came to be seen as mere celibates rather than the innovative, scientific women they were.” Dr. Veit also notes that stereotypes dominate this field. Home economics classes are seen as women’s classes, and the importance for everyone, men and women, of knowing about food, health, and keeping a clean home is forgotten.

From 1975 to 2019, obesity has tripled in Latin America and malnutrition has increased by 11% since 2014. Part of the problem comes from processed and junk foods and families’ lack of time to cook for their children. Another problem, young people do not know how to prepare a balanced meal. This is where home economics courses can come in handy.

For example, England started with food education for all elementary and secondary school children from 2014. That same year, schools in Denmark were required by the government to teach food courses to improve the food eaten. by the students.

In 2010, in an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, authors Alice H. Lichtenstein and David S. Ludwig have argued that courses in this area could help combat childhood obesity by teaching young people the basics not only of cooking but also of nutrition.

Kateika: the Japanese example

Japanese schools teach home economics (kateika 家庭科 in Japanese) in fifth grade and continue it through middle school and high school. Students learn everything from cooking, meal planning and shopping to sewing and building wooden furniture in these classes.

These activities were made compulsory in 1947 in the hope of bringing gender equality into the home. Even the country’s leaders, like Takuya Mitani, a health education planner at Japan’s Ministry of Education, attribute the leveling of gender roles to domestic economics. Tadaharu Minamino, Osaka Prefecture’s first male professor of home economics, told CBC Radio Canada: “People wouldn’t be as healthy today as they are, and the gender equality would not be as widespread. The boys also learn to sew and babysit. . Because of that, we now have this younger generation of men helping to raise their children.”

However, to get there, Kateika had to change her goals and adapt to current social conditions. At first it was about teaching life skills and empowering young people, but now it’s not just about that; it also teaches problem solving. Its integration arose because the Japanese believe that the student must be educated to face all the problems that arise in the future; it is therefore essential to teach them to evaluate different solutions and choose the best one.

From courses on improving the efficiency of household chores so that women have time to study, to tackling obesity, home economics is an area that has a huge impact on society.

When we talk a lot about soft skills or power skills, it’s important not to forget about essential life skills. These may not be what employers are looking for, but these are the abilities that will help the student better adapt to adulthood and can be applied on a day-to-day basis.

Translation by Daniel Wetta.


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