Home ec classes used to be pretty cool. Then, the food industry happened.
The convenience food industry that’s so powerful and entrenched today was just taking root in the 1950s. And as it began to aggressively market its products to a growing US middle class, it faced “one real obstacle,” Moss writes: the “army of school teachers and federal outreach workers who insisted on promoting home-cooked meals, prepared the old fashioned way.”
Home ec teachers explicitly battled against the industry’s claims of convenience, Moss shows. In 1957, he writes, the American Home Economics Association conducted a demo pitting a commercial cake mix against a homemade batter, Moss reports. “As reported in the association’s journal, the homemade cake not only cost less and tasted better, it took only five minutes more to prepare, cook, and serve.” Plus the batter could be made in advance and stored, “for quick parceling out when a cake was needed.” Home-ec teachers also schooled their charges in frugal shopping, teaching them to “avoid buying things they didn’t need.” (Mother Jones)
It’s funny I should have run across that article this morning, because I was just talking with my daughter about how her high school’s variation of home ec seems more geared towards teaching kids to function as low-paid workers in the fast food industry than anything else. There’s no teaching how to shop for staples, plan a weekly menu, balance a checkbook, change your car’s oil. Of course, there wasn’t when I was in school either, but at least we were taught how to follow a recipe and the basics of using a sewing machine. (I’ve forgotten everything to do with sewing except how to fix holes or sew your dance slippers by hand, but I could figure it out if I needed to.) I still remember the hockey-puck cinnamon rolls–someone in my group put the yeast in too-hot water. Poor things.
“It’s more like industrial cooking,” the Princess says to me. “I learn more by watching you.” Which is a nice compliment, but it makes me wonder about a generation of kids who don’t know how to balance a checkbook, or who get takeout because it’s easier. Or who think they have to go to financial planners to pay for advice freely available elsewhere that will fit on a 4×6 card, as the Mother Jones article points out. (Disclaimer here: I go to a wonderful financial planner because I’m a freelancer and am paying for the discipline she provides. I interviewed several financial planners and was happiest with her, and I do my best to do my homework before I go in and visit her. I’m not saying all financial planners are bad.)
Our school district is lucky–we still have music and art classes, as well as PE and foreign languages. Home ec is hanging on by teeth and toenails, and it’s sad. the whole thing is sad, the fact that people expect paved roads, utilities, and decent schools, but don’t want to pay for them. Or they want to privatize them so they can pay for a corporate monopoly. And that we’re letting a bunch of corporations take over raising kids in order to turn them into unquestioning consumers. Or even worse, consumers who don’t have a choice.