Learning Home Economics

This post was first published here on the Econation website.

In recent decades the practical study of Home Economics at school has slowly been sidelined. We live in a society which encourages people to do work for money so that they can pay others to do things that they could do themselves. This is one of the paradoxical traps of affluence.

The traps of affluence are not good for anyone. The rat-race is very real and it causes problems for one’s physical, mental and social well-being. So learning Home Economics and becoming more self-sufficient will not be a hardship. On the contrary, it is very rewarding to do things for yourself. You get self-esteem, resilience and security as well the as feelings of peace, freedom and joy that come from simple living.  

Home economics is about independence

Also, industrialism has pushed us well past the earth’s sustainable resource limits. In the future affluence won’t be possible anyway. In a post-industrial world it will be necessary for people to be more self-sufficient and independent. Learning to be more self-sufficient, especially in absolute necessities such as food, clothes, shelter and basic household goods, will allow everyone to make a better life and at the same time build better societies and sustain a healthy environment.

Essentially, self-sufficiency has two aspects. First, there is the need to scale consumption back to only what is necessary for well-being (this is what we call sufficiency). The second aspect is to produce as much as possible yourself. There will still be a shortfall for most people because you won’t be able to do absolutely everything yourself. This means you will have to do some paid work to afford the goods and services you still need. However, that might mean only one parent has to work at a time and perhaps not even full-time.

The study of Home Economics will be critical for young people to learn and develop the skills of self-sufficiency. However, the benefits of learning Home Economics don’t end there. Students develop creativity, confidence, competence and importantly, they have a lot of fun.

The Comeback of Home Economics

The International Federation of Home Economics defines Home Economics as the “original field of research on economic, social, and ecological aspects of everyday living…Today, while known under many names, the field spans multiple academic disciplines that focus on every-day life skills and responsible resource management at home.”

In the broadest sense, a home economy is a complex system of tools, techniques and behaviours that combine to enable the well-being of the people living in the home. It is interesting to note that the word economics comes from the Greek words oikos (meaning ‘home’) and nomos (meaning ‘custom’ or ‘law’). This means the term ‘home economics’ is a tautology or sorts. The point is that throughout most of human history (and all of prehistory) the HOME economy was THE economy.

Originally the school subject of Home Economics emerged in response to social and well-being issues that resulted from the industrial revolution. Amongst other things, the industrial revolution caused a massive urban drift to cities where the skills for gardening, and self-sufficiency generally, were increasingly lost. Also, with the advent and subsequent proliferation of processed, consumer goods, other traditional household skills like preserving, baking and sewing were undermined.

If anything, things have gotten worse. As mentioned, people just pay for whatever they need nowadays; but the price they pay isn’t just money. Far too many people don’t have the know-how to be self-sufficient, including parents who would otherwise be able to teach their children. For this reason, the school subject of Home Economics is sorely needing a comeback, better and bigger than ever. 

A bigger, better curriculum

Practical Home Economics could cover much more than it has since the mid-20th-century. These have been the areas of cooking and sewing. A holistic curriculum could start with those two and cover other aspects of self-sufficiency and the overall management of the home economy, including:

  1. Food – including growing, harvesting, preserving (freezing, pickling, brining, drying, fermenting), cooking (meals, baking, sauces etc), ways to buy/source (including foraging, hunting, fishing, bartering, sharing). Nutrition and balanced diet.
  2. Clothes – including designing, making, mending, sewing, knitting and weaving. Sustainable and natural materials for textiles.
  3. Shelter – including building skills for maintenance and renovations; heating-cooling and energy efficiencywater management (including rainwater harvesting, greywater recycling), waste management (including composting, waterless toilets etc); sustainable furniture and fittings.
  4. Goods – including making crafts, woodwork, metalwork, recycling/repurposing, tools, natural products (soaps, cleaners, personal care etc). Also guidelines on purchasing sustainable goods and materials.
  5. General – including cleaning, maintenance and care. First aid and natural remedies. 

Making a life

Making a living is important but it is only part of making a life. Life skills go far and beyond vocational skills and it is more important to maximise those things that really matter when it comes to well-being and minimise those that don’t.

To make a life it is necessary to have a well-rounded understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Home Economics must be informed by a range of general knowledge, competencies and approaches which would include:

  • Health – nutrition, hydration, exercise and sleep.
  • Social skills – including cooperation, sharing and mutual aid, communication and conflict avoidance skills.
  • Citizenship – moral responsibility, community involvement and social justice.
  • Planning and design – research, analysis, creative thinking, resource and time allocation/ management.
  • Environmental studies – incl. seasons, climate, soil, water cycles, carbon cycles etc).
  • Prevention – critical analysis and the understanding and management of root causes.
  • Well-being (i.e. what’s really important) – health, relationships, growth and development, creativity, and the pursuit of wisdom.