But can he bake a cherry pie?

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By Robrt L. Pela

The grammar school I attended in the 1970s tried for a while to be “progressive.” Our history teacher asked us kids to call him Richard; our principal grew a set of sideburns and wore, to one very memorable student assembly, a string of love beads. And, sometime late in seventh grade, girls were made to take wood shop classes, and boys were trundled off to home economics, more commonly known as “home ec.”

I nearly levitated with joy. Not because I longed to bake a peach buckle or sew a skirt made from old neckties, but because I, the son of a carpenter, was forever flunking wood shop. My pine spice rack was inevitably crooked, my mahogany bookends wobbly. I was glad to get as far away from vises and saws as I could.

My boyhood peers were less pleased. They resented being told to scramble eggs, sew an apron, bake snickerdoodles. This was women’s work!

Times have changed. Home ec, in the early 21st century, has been transformed. In most high schools, it’s known today as “Family and Consumer Sciences,” and it’s not just a class, it’s a whole program. The once and former Home Ec’s curriculum now includes nutrition and culinary arts, child development and psychology, interior design, and family and interpersonal relationships. Consumerism is often part of the mix as well, and lessons are designed to make kids consider careers in social work and to take on parenting skills – all subjects once considered “female.” Home ec today is definitely not your mother’s course in keeping house.

“It’s become project-based learning,” says Judy Carpenter, a Family and Consumer Science instructor at the predominately Hispanic Apollo High School in Glendale. “We’ve changed home ec into something that offers more life lessons about the job market and less about just how to bake or sew.”

It’s a Valley-wide movement, Carpenter says, and there are numbers to back up her claim. Since 2004, most Phoenix-area high schools have expanded what used to be the home economics curriculum to address the needs of students who want to move into the fashion industry or become a chef. Since the turn of the new century, the number of students enrolling in classes about fashion, design and cooking has more than doubled. The number of schools offering these expanded curriculums has increased, and so have the testing scores. In 2010, 60 percent of students taking fashion, design and culinary classes in Arizona met or exceeded their AIMS test reading and writing standards. It seems that learning to set the perfect table can actually make one smarter.

But once upon a time, home economics was an hour-long course about keeping house. It began its scholarly life as the study of domestic science, and was aimed exclusively at female students, according to local author Corrine Rios-Abair, who wrote Roads to Better Living and other 1960s- and ‘70s-era home-ec textbooks.

It all started in 1862 with the passing of the Morrill Act, which called for an increased number of American land-grant colleges that would offer education to women, who had previously been mostly excluded from the halls of higher learning. Where colleges had once been primarily about preparing men for the workplace, the newly created land-grant colleges welcomed women, who were then offered only “domestic science” courses aimed at teaching misses how to run a home and manage a family once they became Missus. Voila! Home economics.

“Later, the plan was to make the study of home economics a bigger-picture thing,” Rios-Abair says, “just like it’s become today. But back then, the study of life skills and finding one’s place in the professional world was aimed exclusively at women.”

In the early 19th century, forward-thinking academics were already mapping out a curriculum for females in primary and high schools that would lead to professional opportunities once they were grownup women. These enterprising girls could then, educators argued, go on to careers in hotel and restaurant management, the food industry, and textile design and creation.

But conservative, women-belong-in-the-home attitudes prevailed, and home ec remained focused on the science behind domestic skill. Today, that focus has shifted – in good part because of our more sophisticated technologies and deeper insights into science – to boning up on nutritional education and hygiene awareness. And in recent years, the emphasis has shifted to lessons in “domestic skills” that can lead to high-profile careers.

“I always wanted to be a fashion designer,” says Phoenix-based eveningwear designer Alma Primero, whose much-lauded Collection AP clothing line is a favorite at fashion weeks all over the country. “I wouldn’t have known where to start, but in high school, there was a program that let me learn about the fashion industry and exactly how to launch a career in it.”

Today, girls (and boys!) can choose from several such business-oriented classes that rose from the ashes of the home ec of yore. Many local high schools offer classes in interior design, which are less about making the perfect throw pillow than they are about using math skills to draw rooms to scale and then market them to potential clients. Along the way, students learn and employ color theory, elements and principles of design, architecture and the history of furniture production.

“The most popular courses,” according to Carpenter, “are the food-related classes, which offer insights into nutrition as well as basics of food preparation.” Some schools offer two-semester courses in advanced cooking techniques in which students learn culinary terminology, the use of specialized equipment, and participate in lessons about the form and etiquette of the professional chef. At other schools, advanced classes that bring together food and culture offer kids the chance to learn food prep while also studying other countries and ethnicities.

“Culinary arts is a huge industry now,” Carpenter says. “We have a full-sized commercial kitchen here at Apollo, and there’s an emphasis on giving students a better perspective on what’s out there, career-wise, if they’re working with food. Boys enroll in the classes because they think it will be fun to eat free baked goods, but once they get here, they see the number of high-profile careers available to them, and it really turns their thinking around.”

Carpenter says that the biggest change in home ec can be found in the psychology classes, all of them designed for kids interested in pursing a career in education, psychology and sociology. Family structures, developmental theories, sexuality, communication skills and interpersonal relationships are explored in classes that prep students for life’s bigger picture and for a workplace dominated by human resources departments.

And where young girls were once given a half-hour lesson on the proper way to bathe Baby, today they – and their male classmates – are offered entire courses in child psychology, where they can study the development of children from conception straight through to their own high school careers. As with the food-related courses, nutrition gets a lot of attention in these parenting classes. So does birth control.

“My enrollment is very diverse,” says Carpenter of the child psychology classes she teaches at Apollo High, “but I do have a lot of young Hispanic women here. The numbers show that among that group, teen pregnancies tend to be higher. And my goal is to prolong teen pregnancy and to teach effective parenting to girls who could potentially be young when they have their first child.”

Some schools in the Glendale high school district even offer second-year, college-credit classes in child development that find students running a real-life preschool. “It’s a program that offers students the chance to learn the whole dynamics of early childhood in a setting where they’re responsible for the children’s well-being,” Carpenter says. “They create lesson plans and then teach them, and explore behavioral management techniques with children. But the greater lesson is being responsible for a young life.”

These diverse courses in what used to be called home ec are all elements of the original cooking-and-sewing courses we all remember, Carpenter says. “We’ve just expanded them to fit a world that’s more diverse and career-oriented,” she explains. “Today, instead of how to bake a nice cake, we’re teaching kids to think about their lives beyond high school. We’re teaching self-awareness, which was always at the heart of home economics, anyway.”

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