By Abigail A. ’23
When the words “home economics” are spoken, most people’s first reaction would be to say that it’s outdated. “Home economics” hearkens back to classes our grandparents may have taken, focusing on needlework and stereotypically feminine crafts. However, is this stereotype accurate? Several schools across the country are beginning to bring back home economics, rebranded as “family and consumer sciences,”
In order to discuss the future of consumer science, it’s crucial to start by discussing its past. Many attribute the rise of consumer science (then known as home economics) to one scientist. A chemist and the first woman to graduate from MIT, Ellen Swallow Richards contributed greatly to the concept of government-regulated water quality and opened the MIT Women’s Laboratory. Along with this work, Richards also worked to apply scientific methods to housework, with the goal of making it more efficient and less intensive.
Although home economics may today have a reputation of being a sexist relic of the past, it certainly was not then. The implementation of scientific practices to make housework less grueling was seen as a way to empower women, which allowed them to pursue life outside of domestic work. The teaching of these techniques in what would become home economics classes was, in the eyes of many feminists, a way to advance women’s rights.
Home economics became a formal field with the founding of the American Home Economics Association (now known as the American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences) in 1909, and became a standard class taken from elementary through high school.
So if it was so useful in teaching basic life skills, why did schools begin to phase it out in the late 20th century? The short answer is budget cuts. As schools became focused on teaching to the test, specifically state standardized tests that could affect school funding, they saw classes such as mechanics and home economics as non-essential subjects, and they were cut.
This disproportionately affected lower-income students who might not have the luxury to take a private class, those with family members who may not want or be able to teach them. In addition, it perpetuates gender inequalities in domestic labor, as men are often discouraged from learning more stereotypically feminine skills such as cooking and childcare, and women are often discouraged from learning more stereotypically masculine skills such as financial literacy and repairs, despite all of the afotementioned skills being essential for adult life.
To make up for this loss in learning, many students who might not have the luxury to take a private class or learn from a family member have turned to tutorials on social media sites such as YouTube, and colleges and universities have been holding “adulting classes” aimed towards millennials who want to learn these essential skills but never got to as a child.
To figure out how this relates to the Crystal community, I decided to send a survey to the Upper School student body asking students to rate their perceived confidence, importance, and how they learned skills such as finance, repairs, sewing, and childcare, all subjects that would be covered in a typical Family and Consumer Science class.
Across all skills, students consistently rated their skill level lower than the skill’s importance, although some disparities were more visible than others (the average rating for perceived skill in managing personal finances was 2.7, while the average perceived importance was 9.2).
The most common way to learn all skills asked about (with the exception of sewing, where most students were self-taught) was from a parent. Most importantly, 54.6% of students showed some interest in taking a family and consumer science class at Crystal, and 78.6% of students were interested in taking family and consumer science as a Monday Wellness rotation.
This indicates that there is a very real demand among Crystal students for Crystal to join the throng of schools bringing back family and consumer science, to make sure students are sent off to college with a good knowledge of basic life skills.
Categories: Student Life