Home Economics: The Road to Self-Sufficiency?


“Chardon, why haven’t you learned how to cook? What are you going to do when you go to college next year?”

These are just two of the persistent questions my parents kindly nag me with as I begin to make my transition into independent adulthood.  I am sure that I am not the only young adult accustomed to hearing such questions from their parents these days.  These questions indicate a major challenge facing our generation: a lack of basic domestic skills.  As an example, consider Susanna Calhoun ‘15.  “I have my own license,” says Calhoun, a good friend of mine. “But I don’t know how to pump my own gas or change a flat tire. I use full-service stations or wait for my Dad to fill the tank.”

Calhoun expresses an extensive challenge that many members of our generation are struggling with; and it is a challenge that will become more serious as we prepare to go out into the real world and begin to live independently. The truth is, our generation lacks fundamental practical skills that are necessary to prosper in this day and age. Too many young adults don’t know how to cook, clean, shop for healthy foods, balance a checkbook, or even stamp and address a letter.

These may not sound like the most essential skills, but without them, we are at risk of becoming a lost generation. In a recent article for the Boston Globe, Ruth Graham writes that “almost a third of Americans under the age of 19 are now overweight or obese.” Graham argues that our generation lacks basic financial literacy, “with debt spiraling up to unsustainable levels as students juggle increasingly complex burdens of credit payments and student loans.”

Graham attributes part of these problems to a difficult economy, but she argues that a basic lack of self-sufficiency among members of our generation is also to blame.  So what has to happen?  Graham says one potential solution to this 21st century problem might sound a little old school: bring back home economics classes. And I agree. To many people, the term home economics evokes images of young women learning to cook, clean, knit, sew, and perform various other household chores, while young men learn to work with their hands, build, and chop wood in wood shop class. I’m not referring to conventional home economics classes that prepare women to be housewives, but instead, a class that can teach young people practical skills that will serve them in life— and help build a more self-sufficient generation.

Cynthia Pendergast, director of college counseling at Brimmer and May, says the home economics classes that she took as a young woman provided her with a practical skill set. “As a young adult, I knew how to sew, cook, do my own laundry, and balance a checkbook,” says Pendergast. Although Pendergast’s home economics course was offered only to women, she believes that today, both men and women would benefit from classes like this to help them make a successful transition to adulthood.

Bringing home economics courses back into high school curriculums could help address a number of challenges, including adolescent obesity. For example, when parents are working late and young adults are home alone, they could cook balanced, nutritional meals for themselves instead of ordering take-out, or reaching for processed microwavable foods.  “When I was in high school, my parents and teachers encouraged my friends and me to cook for ourselves on weekends,” says my father, Anthony Brooks, who attributes much of his lifes success and happiness to his ability to cook. “It was social and fun and something we liked to do,” Brooks says. “It also taught us useful skills that helped us later in life.”

I also spoke to Carmen Neuberger, a former home economics major at the University of Maryland, who has gone on to pursue a career in higher education. During the 1950’s, when Neuberger was a student in college, home economics was still only a course offered to women, but she makes the point that it is a course relevant to both genders. “Home economics prepares you for life,” says Neuberger. “From the things as simple as running your own household to more important matters such as managing your money and taking proper care of your body—home ec covers it all.”

So, my question is: why has home economics gone out of style? How can the schools do a better job of implementing home economics or similar courses that will cover the basics of life and adulthood? “The year to do it is senior year,” says Beth Escobar, Brimmer and May’s school nurse. Escobar heavily advocates for including a home economics course into the senior year curriculum at Brimmer. “The seniors deserve a class like this. And, as a result of never learning these things, young people are suffering. It is very much needed and the time is now!” adds Escobar.

Home economics may not be the solution for every adolescent issue, but it certainly will bring our generation, and the rest of the generations to come, a step closer to getting better at fending for ourselves. If you ask me, these small skills and tasks are too fundamentally simple to negate from an individual’s independence or success in life.