In middle school and again in high school I actively participated in home economics and shop classes. These weren’t elective courses, they were required and, throughout the many years of instruction in these courses, I learned a wide variety of very useful skills like sewing, cooking, childcare, household budgeting and how to make a bookshelf. I worked and learned alongside both male and female classmates. I even developed a crush on a classmate named “Brad,” who brought in a fancy chef knife to school one day to show off his knife skills in the kitchen. Ironically, I ended up marrying a chef.
In sewing, I learned how to thread a needle and a sewing machine, sew a button, make a pillow, a duffle bag and a sweatshirt. In a brief unit on home finance, I learned how to balance a checkbook, understand simple interest rates, and create a “mock” household budget. In shop, I learned about different types of wood, how to use a saw, drill and sander, how to measure twice and cut once, stain and varnish. In cooking class, I learned how to create a shopping list for several meals, figure the cost per person for those meals, make biscuits, cook a chicken, prepare eggs several different ways, make a variety of casseroles, bake a Bundt cake and a pie. I also learned how to wash and prepare vegetables, use a chef knife, a measuring cup and spoons, a mixer, read a cooking thermometer, read a recipe, preheat an oven and set a table. In the family unit, we had a day care and that is where I learned how to read to young children, and how to hold and diaper a baby.
The final exams for all of those courses were real world tests. For sewing, if your sweatshirt didn’t fit over your head or fell apart at the seams… For finance, after a variety of expenses and deposits were given you had to hand in a completely balanced checkbook and if the numbers didn’t add up… For shop, if the bookshelf wasn’t level… In cooking, if the meal was inedible…. and for the family unit we had to carry around a raw egg for weeks (symbolizing the care and responsibility of a baby) and if you dropped it, well – you get the idea. None of those final exams were traditional, could never be standardized, yet they were some of the best tests we could have ever had as young adults. They tested life skills with tactile activities, and I can honestly say that I have used every skill I learned in my shop and home economics classes in the real world.
When my teenagers ask me how relevant algebra is and if they are ever going to use it, I hesitate and fumble with my answer. Depending upon their trajectory with career choice, algebra may very well need to be in their wheelhouse, just as Latin may need to be if they pursue the sciences. The foundations they build in high school will give them broad exposure and the ability to be able to choose and focus in on what their passion may become. And, while I believe all the courses they take now are relevant and useful and necessary to be exposed to at this point in their lives, at some point some of the information they learn now may fall to the wayside in favor of something more necessary for their future path. However, one thing is for certain, whether they become an engineer, a paramedic, a writer, a teacher, a politician, or an artist, they will at some point probably need to sew on a button, balance their finances, use a drill, hold a baby and they most definitely will need to be able to cook a meal.
So, why does the state of Maryland no longer require home economics courses? I do not know. I do know that in 1997, home economics courses were no longer counted toward Maryland graduation requirements, while technology courses became a new requirement. I’m not bashing on technology courses, we need those, too, as computer skills are essential. But, as you can see, there was definitely a shift in focus in the late 1990s. Actually, the shift probably occurred way before then. As society began chipping away at the traditional gender roles around the mid-century and as women’s rights came to the forefront, one could argue that “women’s work,” often unappreciated, became under-valued. The misnomer of the phrase “women’s work” lies at the root of home economics classrooms fading into modern obscurity. The truth is, cooking, cleaning, sewing, balancing finances and childcare is not specifically women’s work but, more truthfully, the work of being human. As gender roles fade away it becomes even clearer that basic life skills are necessary for each and every one of us, male or female.
So, who will teach our youth these essential life skills? With 60% of all households having two working parents (Bureau of Labor and Statistics), it leaves very little time for at-home cooking lessons. While public schools may offer cabinetry or culinary courses for those anticipating a career in that field, they are often elective and pitched as career starters not basic life skills classes. Rachel Weinstein picked up on the basic skills deficit in America and co-founded the “Adulting School.” Located in Maine, it provides instruction for young adults who are lost in transition. Some skills offered by the school include how to change a flat tire, make deviled eggs, how to fold fitted sheets, and how to pay bills on time.
The idea of a home economics class as an important component of a public education was conceived over 100 years ago by MIT sanitary engineer Ellen Richards and Librarian Melvil Dewey, among others. After several years of conferences at Lake Placid, the American Home Economics Association was created in 1908. Ellen Richards was a progressive woman and the first woman graduate from MIT. Throughout her career, she emphasized the influence of environment on health and well-being (Cornell).
As basic home economics classes disappear into the past, it correlates with a rise in obesity and debt. In February 2019, credit card debt reached its highest point ever, with the average American having a credit card balance of over $4,200 (cnbc.com) and, according to the CDC, adult obesity rates in 2016 hovered around 40% of the population.
I believe home economics skills are more valuable today than ever. With the rise of convenience foods, the ease to which you can acquire a credit card and our society’s disposable tendencies, our health and finances reflect the absence of basic life skills. Even our cooking shows focus on mastering a fancy French dessert rather than how to cut up a chicken.
Do I have an answer to the problem? Yes, and no. I would love to see a return of home economics to the classroom, but that is most likely not going to happen. So, perhaps we take this on ourselves and review the basics with ourselves and with our children. Our wallets and waistlines will be better off. My daughter shared an epiphany with me the other day. She said, “I know the quadratic formula, Mom, but I don’t know how to do my taxes.” As karma would have it, I just popped a button on my shirt. Luckily, I know how to sew it back on. My home economics teacher showed me back in 1983…
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
For kicks and giggles, I ran the numbers on a basic home cooked dinner for four to six people. I used Giant Food store brand prices.
The $2.22 Per Person Meal
1 whole chicken (average 4-5 pounds) at $1.49/pound
white rice ($1.79 for two pounds)
large bagged carrots ($1.79 for two pounds)
salad: 1 head of red leaf lettuce ($1.99)
cucumbers (2 for $3)
cherry tomatoes ($2.99 per pint)
diced carrots (from above)
olive oil ($4.99 for 16 ounces)
apple cider vinegar ($1.29 for 16 ounces)
The meal is a whole baked chicken with cooked rice, cooked sliced carrots with a basic salad. To jazz it up, you could sprinkle the chicken with celery salt and thyme, chop fresh parsley and add it to the rice, add butter and brown sugar to the sliced carrots to make “glazed carrots.” The salad dressing could be enhanced with salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste. With these additions, I would add another 42 cents per person for a total of $2.64 per person. The finished meal would use only a portion of the rice, carrots, cucumber, tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar and extras purchased. Keep in mind, as you would not be using all that you buy, the cost per person does not reflect the total cost of everything purchased. Additionally, the leftover ingredients should be used for a future meal.