At many middle and high schools across the U.S., home economics — now known as Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) — has all but disappeared from the curriculum. In 2006, only three states required students to take some kind of FCS class in junior high or high school, and the classes, which used to last a full year, are often just nine weeks long, said Ruth Graham in a recent Boston Globe op-ed.
It's easy to see why. What started as a serious, scientific subject is now often considered something between a waste of time and a kitschy throwback to a simpler era. Budget restrictions and changes in consumer habits have devalued cooking and housework skills, and the fact that girls now have the same career goals and aspirations as boys makes the traditionally girl-dominated subject seem almost offensively outdated.
Another problem: The lessons that once made home ec "essential" are now almost too elementary for even elementary school.
"When few understood germ theory and almost no one had heard of vitamins, home economics classes offered vital information about washing hands regularly, eating fruits and vegetables, and not feeding coffee to babies, among other lessons," said Helen Zoe Veit in a 2011 New York Times column, "Time to Revive Home Ec." She goes on:
Eventually, however, the discipline’s basic tenets about health and hygiene became so thoroughly popularized that they came to seem like common sense. As a result, their early proponents came to look like old maids stating the obvious instead of the innovators and scientists that many of them really were. Increasingly, home economists’ eagerness to dispense advice on everything from eating to sleeping to posture galled. [The New York Times]
Yet unhealthy eating, for example, plagues today's youth more than ever, bolstering the case that some of the essentials still need to be taught.
A few recent columns have addressed this problem, and advocated a revamped version of the old class. Here, two ways mandatory home ec could help a generation of youngsters.
It could help fight obesity
It's no secret that almost a third of Americans under 19 are either overweight or obese, nearly triple the rate in 1963. In just the last couple decades, childhood obesity has outpaced drug abuse and smoking as the number one heath concern for U.S. parents, says The American Heart Association.
Besides the well-documented health effects of childhood obesity — most notably a greater risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular illnesses later in life — doctors have found psychological risks, as well. "Obese children are more prone to low self-esteem, negative body image, and depression," says AHA.
The causes of childhood obesity are complex and numerous, including the rise of agribusiness, aggressive marketing of not-so-healthy snacks, and squishy health standards for school lunches. Meanwhile, busy parents are picking up food on the go, and awareness efforts like Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign have politicized the issue, alienating families who think the government is getting too involved in private choices.
"But what if the government put the tools of obesity prevention in the hands of children themselves, by teaching them how to cook?" asks Veit.
It's a good question: The class that first taught kids to eat fruits and vegetables could…teach kids to eat fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, basic cooking skills could arm kids with a second option to fast food, and even teach them skills to show off at home. "[I]magine a home ec that taught basic skills like how to prepare a simple pureed vegetable soup, whip up a quick, easy, and much-cheaper-than-bottled salad dressing, or stock up a pantry with inexpensive bulk staples?" asks Tom Philpott at Mother Jones.
It could teach kids about personal finance
The "economics" part of home ec used to focus on "how to balance a checkbook" — a skill about as useful today as canning peaches. But financial challenges haven't disappeared — in fact, they've grown more complicated. High school students headed for college will soon be managing enormous student debt, an issue their parents and grandparents may not have faced.
"As pensions disappear, Americans are increasingly responsible for setting up their own retirement plans; credit card offers and student loans are complex decisions with lifelong repercussions," says Graham. Basic budgeting and investing principles, as well as skills like choosing the right credit card, are modern-day "essentials" that home ec could help instill.