The field of Home Economics was established many years ago to improve economic well-being and quality of life for families through research-based education in the domestic arts. Topics included nutrition, food preservation, food safety, money management, clothing construction, the use and care of fabrics and household equipment, parenting, household management, and more. In short, knowledge for real life.
To achieve the goal of improving quality of life required home economics teachers. Schools of home economics opened across the country to train primarily women for this important work. Graduates of these programs became public school teachers and Home Demonstration Agents with the Cooperative Extension Service–the outreach arm of land-grant universities nationwide. Home economics information was available to everyone; through schools for children and from county extension offices for adults.
In those early days, being a home economist meant mastering a variety of essential skills. Graduates were jacks of all trades, excelling at cooking, canning, sewing, keeping house, managing the family budget, and raising children–just to name a few. Home economists possessed a missionary zeal for the work and set out to change the world. Beyond a doubt, they were very successful at improving the quality of life for the families they touched. Measuring the value of home economics education to society is difficult, but a world without the knowledge put forth through home economics is unimaginable.
Land-grant university faculty who taught future home economics teachers and agents also conducted research to expand the knowledge base. Schools of Home Economics became Colleges of Home Economics, with departments comprised of faculty who taught and conducted research in each area of the field. Over the next few decades, the body of research expanded so much that, rather than studying home economics, individuals could specialize by pursuing degrees in nutrition, food science, family resource management, consumer studies, human development, textiles, and more.
In the early 1990s, the field of home economics experienced an identity crisis. Leaders feared that the name “home economics” evoked antiquated images that were not attractive to students and no longer represented the breadth and depth of the field. Professional associations and colleges of home economics across the country underwent name changes. Rather than changing from home economics to a specific name, each went their own way, resulting in a plethora of new names such as near environment, human environmental sciences, and family & consumer sciences.
Over the next decade, family & consumer sciences emerged as the prominent name, though many universities maintained programs with different monikers. In that same interval, several former home economics colleges were dismantled. Departments were relocated to different colleges across campus in a wide variety of restructuring schemes. It was the beginning of the end for home economics.
In the next two years, family and consumer sciences will effectively be removed from Georgia public schools. The same fate awaits these programs in other states as implementation of the new career pathways model for middle- and high school education spreads. Students will no longer be able to take family and consumer sciences courses such as bachelor living and others that provide basic information about cooking, managing finances, parenting, home furnishings, and other skills needed to function in the world of adults. Instead, by eighth grade, students must focus on one of the career pathways. Generalists are simply not equipped to teach the depth of content required by the pathways model.
Many old-school home economists bemoan the death of family and consumer sciences and fight to maintain an identity. They’re wrong, and their efforts are futile. Family and consumer sciences is a victim of its own success. Being a general home economist with enough knowledge in all the component parts of the field is no longer possible. The breadth and depth of the field makes the concept of the general home economist archaic.
What used to be known as nutrition has now diversified and specialized into fields such as dietetics, food science, food safety, consumer foods, nutrition science and more. Family resource management has morphed into financial planning, consumer economics, housing, residential property management, and behavioral economics. The same is true in areas such as human development, family studies, textiles, interior design, and fashion merchandising. It’s simply not possible to be proficient in all of these areas.
The new career pathways model is good for family and consumer sciences. Yes, our name is gone from public schools…forever. But the content areas that comprise our field live and breathe and are spread across multiple pathways that will attract a much greater number of students than what we currently see in our programs. Rather than trying to defend what was, it’s time to explore new opportunities to attract students into our programs via the sixteen pathways. To be successful, we need to aggressively associate ourselves with any pathway in which our content appears.
I’m proud of the fact that both my degrees are in home economics. My undergraduate degree is in family resource management and consumer studies. My graduate degree is in consumer economics. I don’t know the first thing about food preservation, nutrition, parenting, and many of the other areas of the field. Other than for my own personal use, I don’t need to know, either. I can always consult an expert if the need for any of that knowledge arises here in…
My Glass House