Reading, writing, arithmetic: these are the standard things every parent expects their child to learn in school. But many of life’s most practical challenges take place outside of the classroom: how to assemble a new desk or get a ketchup stain off your shirt – hell, how to simply to feed yourself something halfway decent. Where’s the syllabus for that?
There may be one – or at least there used to be. It was called Home Ec, and considering the faltering economy and the fact that so many young Americans lack routine life skills, it might be time to bring Home Ec back.
The do-it-yourself movement for kids is gaining momentum. British chef Jamie Oliver has become a household name thanks to his new ABC reality show, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, which chronicles his crusade to bring basic cooking skills and healthy eating habits to school lunchrooms and families in West Virginia. In 2009, motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford challenged millions of readers to reconsider the intellectual and spiritual value of manual work in his surprise bestseller, Shop Class as Soul Craft. And in efforts to promote awareness and reform, Michelle Obama has planted a White House garden and is rallying to improve school lunches. (Should you have any doubt about how sorely that’s needed, take a look at this trailer or this blog by a teacher who has vowed to eat the same lunch as her students every day this year.)
Sadly, however, the education system itself continues to lag behind. To fill in the gaps no longer filled by Home Ec, some parents have begun taking their children’s domestic educations back into their own hands, passing down skills or signing up together for extra-curricular classes.
In major cities, programs such as Dough-Re-Mi Kids and Kid’s Culinary Adventures teach basic kitchen skills, and Construction Kids and Kids’ Carpentry run hands-on workshops and camps. And throughout the country, camps, colleges, and continuing education programs can also be terrific resources. (The lineup at RISD, in Providence, Rhode Island, even includes classes like “Cool Contraptions” and “Knitting Designer.”)
Those are all great opportunities – for families that can afford them. But real change won’t be possible until a basic canon of practical skills is once again part of the education of every student.
That’s where Home Ec could come in. As of 2002-2003, only 5.5 million students were enrolled in some version of Home Ec (now more often called by the politically correct moniker of Family and Consumer Sciences). Scarce resources and an ongoing shortage of qualified teachers have greatly lessened the program’s impact.
But done properly, classes in life skills – whether they’re called domestic science, shop or whatever – can actually assist in the learning of more “serious” classes that have replaced Home Ec in many curricula.
In a recent Boston Globe article, Katherine Brophy, an associate professor of development and family studies at the University of Connecticut, explained that “mathematics and a lot of [other academic] areas come to life in [home ec]. Students can really see where they’re applied.” Learning how to grow a tomato from seed or how to balance a grocery budget or measure a seam are not intellectually empty tasks but rather practical lessons that can help make abstract concepts concrete.
And if you ask psychologists, the benefits of Home Ec can reach far beyond the kitchen, classroom or the garage. “One of the constant themes of childhood and adolescence is the desire to feel that actions originate from within: ‘I can do it myself,’” explains psychologist Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege. Children who go on to thrive are often marked by what she calls “self efficacy” – a do-it-yourself confidence or, in Levine’s words, “the belief that we can successfully impact our world.”
Those feelings of personal competence can change your life, whether you’re thirteen or thirty-two. Take Erin Bried, an editor at Self magazine and author of the updated Home Ec manual How to Sew a Button and Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew. Bried admits that she might never have learned the skills she spotlights in her book if one day she hadn’t tried to serve her friends a strawberry pie studded with rainbow chard. (She’d mistaken it for rhubarb.) “It was completely disgusting,” she recalls with a laugh. “And at that point, I realized it was not only embarrassing not to know how to do simple things like roast a chicken or mend the buttons on my shirt – it felt irresponsible.”
I’d argue that it doesn’t only feel irresponsible, it really is. Considering the world our children are likely to inherit, sending them out without basic life skills and the confidence they give you is doing them a larger injustice than we may realize.