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June 6, 2012

Slate: Bring back Home Ec!

In 2010, Ikea commissioned a report on the "future of the kitchen." The final product sketched out three possibilities for the kitchen of 2040: an "emotionally intelligent" room that coaches you on nutritional needs and respond to your moods; a self-sufficient "back-to-nature" model that is eco-friendly, garden included; and a "smart" kitchen, compete with apps and touchscreens to help anticipate your needs. But no matter which most appeals to you, one thing is certain: We'll still be cooking, even if it's with genetically engineered food from farms worked by autonomous machines.

The question is, then, how to make sure that the men and women who own these kitchens know how to cook. If parents can't teach kids healthy eating and basic cooking, then schools should. Let's teach them some basic budgeting, cleaning, sewing and even child care, too.

Once, kids — well, girls — learned how to make a meal and keep a home by helping their mothers. Around the turn of the 20th century, home-economics classes codified this knowledge, introducing future wives to nutrition, budgeting, hygiene and, of course, cooking. But, as Helen Zoe Viet wrote in a 2011 op-ed for The New York Times, those lessons eventually so permeated society 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. . . . Today we remember only the stereotypes about home economics, while forgetting the movement's crucial lessons on healthy eating and cooking."

Though we think of home ec as a throwback, it never really disappeared from U.S. schools. It was rebranded "family and consumer sciences" (FACS) in the late '90s and can still be found in school districts across the country. A survey published in 2006 found that in the 2002-03 school year, almost 25 percent of students had taken an FACS class — about the same proportion as in 1959.

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