Op-Ed: For Healthier Kids, Bring Back Home Ec

Sep 6, 2011

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host: Once a staple of public education, home economics was pretty much laughed out of many schools' curricula. In Helen Zoe Veit's words from The New York Times today, home ec became stereotyped as bland food, bad sewing and self-righteous fussiness. In her op-ed piece, Veit argues that a return to the roots of home economics could go someway to address the growing obesity problem. More on that in a moment. But we'd like to hear from you. What did you learn in home economics? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Helen Veit joins us now from member station WKAR in East Lansing. There she teaches history at Michigan State. Nice to have you with us today.

HELEN ZOE VEIT: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And we'll ask you the question. What did you learn in home ec?

VEIT: Well, I learned in my 7th grade class a lot about what to do with premade biscuit dough. I was reminiscing with classmates today about the various things we did with it but in reality not much. But as I wrote about in the op-ed, the next year I had a cookery class in Wales, in a large public school that was totally different where we learned to make pastry, where we learned to make vegetable soups. We learned the basics of cooking that really stuck with me.

CONAN: And as an historian, I think you've gone back to the origins of home economics and discovered that it's not quite the easy-A joke that we all thought it was.

VEIT: That's exactly right. Back in the origins of the discipline, back in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, it was a serious academic subject. For many women, it was the first time that they were allowed to be professors in universities. And for many students, it was the first time they were allowed to be undergraduates as well. Serious home economics departments in the early 20th century regularly required classes in biology, in chemistry and bacteriology.

CONAN: Yet, as those - our understanding of germ theory and other things became more commonplace, home ec came out of fashion.

VEIT: Exactly. Precisely because the home economics movement was so successful. It did indeed popularize the basics of nutrition knowledge, the basics of germ theory and hygiene. But by the late 20th century, everybody knew those things, and so it seemed irrelevant. And the women who were teaching it, they were mainly women, also seen not to have a clear role anymore. But I think the opposite is now the case. We're starting to feel the absence of a formal way to teach children about cooking and nutrition.

CONAN: And do you think that if it is to come back and we're talking about an era where schools across the country are canceling music and physical education and art classes and budgets are tight everywhere, if it comes back, it's got to have to be styled as something other than home ec, don't you think?

VEIT: I think so. Among other things, I don't think the name will survive. It already has died. Those programs that are still in existence call themselves things like family and consumer sciences or human ecology. But I do think that the whole program would have to be rethought, and that we'd want to rethink it. For example, the emphasis on sewing, which I think is very useful, would probably not be the top priority for many people, while basic cooking skills would.

CONAN: It's interesting you say that. We got this email from Tracy(ph) in Tulsa. I learned basic sewing skills in home economics that have saved me hundreds of dollars over the years in repairing clothing, making alterations, sewing on buttons and fixing holes in socks. I think everybody should know how to sew.

VEIT: I agree that sewing is wonderful. The same way that food is now available cheaply, clothing is also available cheaply, for the wrong reasons sometimes because we get it, you know, cheaply made clothes from sweatshops in other countries. The difference is that that's not making us less physically healthy, whereas the cheap food is. And so I think if we're going to prioritize, we would have to prioritize teaching cooking first.

CONAN: And with the popularity of all the cooking shows on television, you'd think that there ought to be an ability to glamorize this enough that kids would want to take it.

VEIT: I think so. I mean, I think cooking has cachet at least among certain people now. I think there's a reviving interest in cooking. The problem with these food shows as opposed to actual cooking classes is that cooking is such a sensuous task, in the sense that it does engage the senses. And seeing it and hearing it is fine for watching it on television, but you have to be able to taste and smell and, of course, to feel what's going on, too, to really understand how to do it.

CONAN: And if you can understand which ingredients to include and why, well, you can serve yourself a lot and your family a lot better than by cooking processed foods and - or going out to eat.

VEIT: Exactly. And I mean, one of the things that I would hope people would emphasize if people do start to talk about reviving home economics is that home cooking doesn't always have to be the healthiest cooking. We don't have to be teaching children just how to cook carrot sticks. But just by virtue of making foods at home, you're almost guaranteed to be making them much more healthfully than they would be if you buy them at a fast-food restaurant or in virtually any restaurant where fats and sugars are used in such enormous quantities.

CONAN: I think even I can make carrot sticks.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: This is from Linda in Minneapolis. I learned to make tomato aspic, which no real person has ever liked, and marshmallow puffs out of a tube of refrigerated dinner rolls also extremely useful for future dinner parties - not. I also got into trouble for battering a - buttering a potholder instead of bread for French toast. I had to take sewing, which I already learned from my mother. What I wanted to learn was woodworking and metal shop. Alas, this was the '60s and there was no hope for girls.

VEIT: Hmm.

CONAN: And so, indeed, the girls went to home ec, the boys went to shop.

VEIT: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. And, of course, I mean, that's one thing that I think would just be totally rethought, is that this would be a gender-neutral activity and that both boys and girls, male and female students would get full - have a fully equal place in the classroom.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking with Helen Zoe Veit at the University - excuse me - at Michigan State University, author of forthcoming book "Victory Over Ourselves: American Food in the Era of the Great War." We'll start with Veronica, Veronica on the line with us from Syracuse in Utah.

VERONICA: Hello, Neal. Thank you for sharing lunch with me every day. I so appreciate your program.

CONAN: And I hope you cook carefully at lunch every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VERONICA: I did. And, you know, I learned a lot of things in home ec. I learned the 10 steps to washing dishes. I didn't know there were 10 steps to washing dishes. I learned budgeting. I learned cooking from scratch balanced meals that you had to budget for and you had to present coupons for. We learned sewing. And like your previous comment said, you know, thousands of dollars may be of our lifetime that can be saved from having such skills. I think that these are life skills that anyone should be able to have. I think that these were passed from mother to daughter in years past, but those mothers are no longer available in the home to teach these things, or they are skills that are being lost. And I think, as a nation, we would benefit from having this kind of knowledge.

CONAN: Listening in the background, it sounds as if you may have benefited also from diaper-changing lessons.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VERONICA: Those were not taught, but that would have been very beneficial.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Veronica, thank you very much for the call. And we appreciate you're listening at lunch every day.

VERONICA: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And as she said, these classes got - well, it was not just cooking, it was a whole bunch of skills. Do you think that any home economics course for the 21st century would become - well, studded with all of these other skills, as sewing and budgeting? People need to know that stuff too.

VEIT: I agree. I do agree with that. I think there's a, sort of, vacuum of basic life skills, including balancing the checkbook, organizing your bills. What I do know is that the cooking part of it is what I think should be addressed first. And then perhaps from there, these other life skills could be incorporated.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Jonathan, and Jonathan with us from Detroit.

JONATHAN: Hi. How are you doing? When I went to home ec, I actually learned a lot that I'd carry with me throughout my entire life as far as, like, cooking, baking, sewing, how to mix liquid with solids in the kitchen. I even learned how to iron - something I've never even learned before and learned that, and since then I've been good at ironing. And just the whole process of in order of a lot of things to do in the home and, especially, in the kitchen that I've noticed a lot of younger people these day kind of don't know how to do. They, you know, they can make simple things, but the normal things that, you know, I learned back in home ec, some of these young kids can't even make nowadays.

CONAN: And how many boys were in your class?

JONATHAN: In my class, there were probably about 15 guys and the rest were all girls.

CONAN: Fifteen guys out of how many?

JONATHAN: There's like 15 guys, maybe 25 girls.

CONAN: So you were in the minority but not alone by any stretch of the imagination?

JONATHAN: Yes.

CONAN: All right.

JONATHAN: Just like that.

CONAN: And it was time well spent.

JONATHAN: Yeah.

CONAN: All right.

JONATHAN: Like I really enjoyed it, and it's something that once I've learned it, I'd kept it with me my entire life.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Jonathan.

JONATHAN: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Amanda: I learned nothing as I didn't take it. It was considered a joke. I learned some from my mother, but she worked full time. Now, as a mother of five young children, my learning curve for domestic skills has become steep. I'd love to see a revival of home ec, and I hope to pass those skills on to my daughter and to my sons as well for that matter.

And I guess that's the point. What was it, do you think, that led - I mean, yes, some of the skills became common sense and common knowledge, but there was no seeming effort to keep up with the times of home economics.

VEIT: No. I mean, I think home economics faltered in many ways. During the last 40 years, corn and soy crops were heavily subsidized at the same time that the food industry worked very hard to sell the ideas that home cooking was hard and that healthy food tasted bad. Meanwhile, home economics withered. It really did stick with the old program of, you know, this, sort of, sewing and basic cooking and often the rather starkly gendered model of teaching. And I think we would have to rethink home economics for the 21st century.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Gretel: I taught poetry in the schools in the 1980s in Wyoming, but recently thought it would be useful to teach gardens in the schools, raise vegetables beds at every school and greenhouses where children could learn to grow food sustainably as well as harvest and cook the produce. You could throw in a poet to help the kids write about the miracle of growing food as well.

That is a skill that I think a lot of people would find useful.

VEIT: Oh, I totally agree. I think gardening is also one of those things that seemed to be capturing the public imagination. And it would be wonderful to think about to integrate gardening programs within public schools. Some schools like, for example, the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, which was something that Alice Waters founded, is trying to do just that. There's a school in Detroit that's trying to do just that, the Catherine Ferguson Academy. And I think that's a wonderful wave for the future.

CONAN: We're talking with Helen Zoe Veit, professor of history at Michigan State University, who wrote an op-ed in The New York Times "Time to Revive Home Ec." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we go next to - this is Lena, Lena with us from Columbus, Georgia.

LENA: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

LENA: Yeah. I was just going to say I really didn't learn anything from home ec, because my mom taught me to cook and sew and did all the things I need to do. And my dad taught me how to take care of my car. But, that said...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LENA: ...they still need to bring these back into the schools. And I totally agree with the garden thing and the cooking and - but just basic life skills is what these kids need to learn. I know so many kids who don't even know how to cook. They eat out of the fast-food or with microwave or anything that's easy. And they couldn't even boil water if they have to.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LENA: So yeah, we do need to bring back how to take care of yourself classes. It's basically what it needs to be.

CONAN: Not a bad title, but if you already knew all that stuff, I assumed you took the course so you could...

LENA: I had to. It was required. And not only...

CONAN: Required? Oh, OK.

LENA: Yeah, it was required and it really missed my home ec teacher, that I would whip up whatever easy sewing projects she had for us within a day, and it took everybody else two weeks to do it. And I'll tell you, Neal, I'm a professional seamstress.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LENA: There aren't many of us around.

CONAN: Ha. And, obviously, you got those skills from your mom and not from the home ec course.

LENA: Yeah. And my mom was the product of the '50s when moms taught their daughters and maybe their other kids, their boys, too, how to cook and sew and take care of things.

CONAN: Well, Lena, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

LENA: Thanks.

CONAN: Email from Gwen in Charlotte. I'm always glad to hear good things about my major, home ec. However, please mention it's still alive and well in some schools, but the correct name is Family and Consumer Sciences.

So, Helen Zoe Veit, family and consumer sciences, I can't see a lot of kids in the 21st century leaping to sign up if that's an elective.

VEIT: Well, you know, it's all a question of perception and what they know it to be. As I understand it, family and consumer sciences now are relatively diverse across the country: some of them are doing well, some of them still teach cooking and sewing, some of them are really more oriented towards the consumer side of it, teaching children how to balance checkbooks and things like that.

But, yeah, I mean, home economics - one part of its history is that it has always struggled over what to call itself, whether it should be domestic science or euthenics or home economics or domestic economy. This is an ongoing discussion.

CONAN: Email from Allison(ph) in Alabama. Home ec was certainly a joke for us in the 1995, 1996 school year, but I learned basic sewing skills. And it was a big joke that we made nothing but hair scrunchies and boxer shorts. However, I lost my job in interior design a couple of years ago when the market tanked. I was able to use these basic skills and I taught myself to sew window treatments. It's how I made ends meet for two years. Thank you so much. This is from Mrs. - oh, thank you so much to Mrs. Weaver in Talladega in Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: So there's a belated thank you to a woman who toiled in the home ec class. Clint is on the line, Clint calling us from South Bend.

CLINT: Good afternoon to you both. How are you doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

CLINT: Well, I just want to bring up a couple of quick things. One is we all learned how to make the silly soups and puff pastry and pre-made biscuit dough food. But I think that - well, (unintelligible) and joke. There's really a lot of it that we did keep, like how to not burn that pastry dough, and how to not burn and how to mix the soups and that sort of thing, which carry on to other meals and more sophisticated tastes. My second point was, it's going to be rough to try and get something like this back into the fold now that we're in such a financial crunch everywhere and cutting sports programs and music and art and all these things. And like I said, that's all I want to say. I'll take your comments off the air.

CONAN: All right, Clint. Thanks very much for the call. And, well, he certainly got a point.

VEIT: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. Unfortunately, you know, I don't think anyone has a blueprint of how to do this yet, but I think it's great that people are talking about it.

CONAN: We'll end with these two emails. This one from Jane in Denver: I learned that my father can sew rickrack on an apron much better than I could. I turned in the apron, and he got a B minus on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And this one from Megan in Cincinnati: Ladies, wash as you go, keep your kitchen area clean. So that from Mrs. Armstrong in Westlane Junior High School home ec teacher foods in 1972. So, I guess, we all remember something if we ever took home ec. Helen Zoe Veit, thanks very much for your time today

VEIT: Thank you.

CONAN: Helen Zoe Veit is professor of history at Michigan State, author of the forthcoming "Victory Over Ourselves: American Food in the Era of the Great War." You could find a link to her op-ed at our website. Go to npr.org. and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, Ken Rudin, our political junkie, joins us to talk jobs plans, the GOP debate and the return of Scuttlebutton. Plus, we'll ask Syria's ambassador to the United States about the brutal crackdown in his country. Stay with us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.