Is the return of home economics the answer to our modern woes?

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Bringing home economics back to the elementary and secondary school curriculum is a repeated solution to a host of modern problems.

Whether it’s the so-called “obesity epidemic”, the nutritionally poor diets of Canadians, rising rates of chronic disease, food insecurity, rampant consumerism and debt household, environmental sustainability, consumer deskilling, declining food literacy, and what is now called the “adult.”

It is true that the home economy includes a range of skills that are important in everyday life, such as food and financial literacy, both of which have been in decline among Canadians for decades.

And while reinstating home economics classes to teach young people about cooking and nutrition might seem like an obvious way to address these modern problems, we ask: do advocates know what they’re saying when they call for a comeback? home economics?

We do not think so.

Based on our ongoing research, we believe that calls to reinstate home economics as a solution to modern problems reduce the field to a practical skill set, undermining its breadth and complexity, as well as the contributions of women home economists. who have long fought for recognition of themselves and their work.

What is home economics?

What comes to mind when you hear domestical economy? For many, it’s a stereotypical image of kitsch, apron-clad, starched ladies praising the virtues of spotless cooking, carefully planned dinner parties, and family meals from scratch.

Despite its pervasiveness, this stereotype is grossly inaccurate and supports the institutional sexism that has historically limited the work of home and field economists, and motivated the closure of post-secondary home economics programs in Canada and the United States.

Afternoon tea for home economics students at Mount Saint Vincent College, circa 1940.
(Mount Saint Vincent University Archives), Author provided (no reuse)

Ironically, and contrary to widespread stereotypes, household economists publicly advocated for the politicization and respect of domestic work, and dramatically expanded opportunities for women in higher education and paid employment that aimed to lift them out of the labor market. home and into public life.

Home economists were among the first to support, and in some cases push for, many public policy changes that we take for granted today – like basic legislation on food security, access to information on reproductive health and rights that were essential to women’s daily lives. and their families.

Throughout the 20th century, home economics scholars developed a rich theoretical and interdisciplinary conceptualization of the field that shaped practitioners’ knowledge, skills, and commitment to their work in communities, education, and care. Canadian politics.



Read more: The pandemic sewing wave is a chance to rediscover the practical arts


Home economics has always been about much more than food skills.

But by singling out food skills, calls to bring home economics downplay and trivialize much of the important work, accomplishments, and aspirations of women home economists who pioneered the field.

These calls leave unaddressed deeper underlying issues, namely the gendered undervaluation of feminized domestic work, which is still largely done by women, which has contributed to the end of compulsory home economics courses.

Calls to bring home economics back reflect the field’s reductive stereotypes and undermine the bitter struggles of women home economists for recognition of their work as women and as professionals.

Euthenia and the science of the “good life”

Another problem the unrest calls for bringing home economics back is that it unwittingly dubs the individualistic solutions to what are structural problems, as well as the racist and anti-immigrant views that were embedded in the fields’ ideas of ” good life”, or what it means to eat, cook and live “well”.

A group of people stand and sit for a class photo.  Black and white group of more than 20 people, mostly men
Ellen Swallow Richards (front row, second from right) with the MIT chemistry team, circa 1900. Richard’s work was fundamental to the science of home economics.
(MIT Museum)

The founders of home economics championed euthenia, the science of controlling one’s environment through refined and graceful living as a means to a better life and improved human development. The principles of euthenia were based on white, Eurocentric, upper-class values ​​and culture, and aimed to preserve the wrongly presumed superiority of white people.

Some have noted that these values ​​and culture resonate in contemporary health and food movements from which calls are often made for the return of home economics.

In other words, calls for the return of home economics often contain unexamined baggage about what counts as “living well.”

Ultimately, bringing back the home economy could offer young people the opportunity to learn valuable life skills. Yet, as the women who founded and developed the field intended, such skill-based learning must be accompanied by lessons in broader historical, social, political, and cultural understandings of food, cooking, cooking, and cooking. health, nutrition and domestic work.

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