How America Abandoned Home Economics And Made ‘Adulting’ An Achievement

A decades-long shift toward preparing students to succeed in private industry has left multiple generations of high school graduates unprepared for life as an adult.

Originally Published: 
Adult man cooking in kitchen with his back towards the camera

In 1984, President Reagan signed the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act. The law required states to establish technical committees of business and labor leaders to shape school curricula and providing three-quarters of the funding for public-private education programs for high-tech industries. There was no pomp and circumstance — the signing didn’t even make Reagan’s daily diary — but it would prove to be one of the more consequential bills passed during his tenure. And it made a lot of people in corner offices very happy.

“I was delighted that this bill finally passed,” W.E. Hardman, president of the National Tooling and Machining Association, told Education Week at a press conference a few weeks later. “This law puts control over vocational education where it belongs — in the hands of people with jobs.” Hardman’s implication? Democratic structures were ill-suited to such control. Market leaders were in a better position to determine the value of specific taught skills in public schools.

Not so much. Thirty-five years later, the legacy of Perkins is perhaps best encapsulated by, of all things, the heavily trafficked BuzzFeed listicle “18 Cooking Fails That Are Soooo Bad They’re Actually Good.” Typical is the picture of a bowl of dry spaghetti an incompetent home cook somehow managed to light on fire. The caption reads in part: “I tried to adult so hard and I failed.”

What does this have to do with the education agenda of the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan, who famously favored macaroni and cheese? Everything.

Social realities grow from the soil of policy. In the 35 years since Perkins, the federal government has continued to invest heavily in career and technical education (CTE) programs shaped by private interests and divested from teaching young people the practical skills now collectively understood to constitute “adulting.” The oft-repeated accusations of generational incompetence levied at Americans under 40 might stick — more and more of today’s parents look outside the home for help with domestic tasks — but none of this is on account of laziness, just ignorance.

The basic knowledge gap is now multigenerational, which makes it feel normal even though it represents a historic aberration.

The real reason you don’t know anything is that you were never taught to live. You were taught to work. More specifically, you were taught to work for people like W.E. Hardman, president of the National Tooling and Machining Association. The government’s continued emphasis on career-focused education and its refusal to fund life-preparedness programs has created and exacerbated a very real problem: People don’t have basic skills, a gap that has spawned an entire industry that sells private solutions to public ignorance.

The whole “Uber for…” genre of startups (Handy for home repairs, Flycleaners for laundry, etc.) exists to solve problems elbow grease would have sorted had Reagan not cut funding for know-how, a richly ironic move for a man whose political career was built on the rhetoric of “personal responsibility.” A lack of what were once near-universal skills are now shaping the choices of grown men like Andrew Selepak, whose choices reflect those of many men his age.

Where Selepak’s grandfather built multi-room additions to the family home, Selepak, a 41-year-old telecommunications professor at the University of Florida, has yet to buy a home because it’s easier to have a landlord take care of things.

“One of the reasons I have only ever rented is because I wouldn’t know how to fix anything on my own,” he says. “I wish I had spent more time kind of watching my grandfather.”

Of course, he could have learned skills like these in school in classes designed to teach them. But he didn’t. Instead, Selepak chose academically rigorous classes that would help him get into the highly selective University of Virginia. He says that his students at the University of Florida seem to have made the same choices, perpetuating the lack of practical skills education, particularly through what used to be called home economics, across generations.

The basic knowledge gap is now multigenerational, which makes it feel normal even though it represents a historic aberration. Even before the heyday of home economics, practical skills like carpentry, plumbing, cooking, and sewing were taught at home and in schools. They were necessary to becoming a functional adult.

Home economics emerged out of the social and cultural landslide set off by industrialization, immigration, and urbanization at the end of the 19th century. American life had suddenly transitioned from being rural and agricultural to urban and industrial, a shift that forced young people to go out of their way to learn non-repetitive skills. The membership of the American Home Economics Association grew from 800 in 1909 to a peak of 50,000 in the mid-1960s, reflecting changes that continued through the middle of the century.

Though the need for home economics was not eliminated by the information age, the forces that shaped the end of the 20th century — namely feminism and the freer informational exchange — wound up crippling the field. AHEA membership dropped to 25,000 in the 1990s. A 1994 name change to “Family and Consumer Sciences” was meant to reflect the discipline’s complexity and shed its gendered baggage, but membership in the renamed American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences continued to fall. Today, it’s about 6,000 nationwide. Meanwhile, kids are learning basic coding in the third grade.

Classes focused on teaching practical skills, which fall outside of the skill, wage, demand trichotomy, evaporate.

Over the past few decades, FCS teachers have been operating in an increasingly competitive educational system. College has become almost the only means of attaining or retaining middle-class status. As Selepak points out, college admission officers are less impressed by sewing skills than by AP test results, so FCS classes emptied out as students focused almost entirely on academic goals.

And as quantifiable standards made educational leaders more focused on data and on test results, the problem was amplified. Not only did students no longer have a strong reason to go to FCS classes, schools — at least from the perspective of their administrators — were no longer incentivized to even offer them.

“Given the fact that faith in data is what motivates the standardized testing regime, the lack of numbers — and the difficulty in measuring longitudinally the myriad impacts holistic learning can have on young people — put advocates at a clear disadvantage,” says Carol Werhan, a family and consumer sciences teacher educator at Purdue. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

That cycle is harming the discipline at every level. Werhan does a national survey of her field every few years. In 2003, 5.5 million students were learning FCS from 37,500 teachers. A decade later, those numbers had shrunk to 3.4 million and 28,000, respectively. She’s still working on a new edition but she expects to see another, albeit smaller, decline.

“Decision-makers failed to recognize the importance of family and consumer sciences and the relevance to the needs of students,” says Susan Turgeson, an assistant professor of FCS at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. “They are just not recognizing that holistic approach to education and the needs of adolescents who are going to be adults, who need to be productive citizens able to function in the world.”

The numbers bear this out. Since 2002, the entire extent of federal FCS-specific funding has been USDA grants totaling $3.4 million to public universities that indirectly support FCS. Compare that to the $1.2 billion that the federal department of education sent directly to secondary schools for CTE programming just last year. It doesn’t take a math teacher to see that FCS educators are better off going for that dramatically larger pot, particularly when those funds can be used to pay directly for classes.

The only problem? The criteria for getting CTE funds are not in line with what FCS education is intended to do. Perkins received the Gipper’s signature and put business interests rather than home life at the fore.

“There’s a perception that a lot of the careers that FCS aligns to don’t tick enough boxes,” says Reno Palombit, an FCS state administrator in North Carolina. He’s referring to the phrase “high skill, high wage, or high demand,” which appears no less than 17 times in Perkins IV, passed in 2006.

Palombit says that many decision-makers end up replacing the word “or” with the word “and,” which puts FCS advocates at a greater disadvantage. Consider “human/child development and family relations.” One of the careers associated with this content area is childcare worker, a profession that as of May 2018 had a median hourly wage of $11.17 — $7.41 less than the figure for all occupations nationwide. There is tremendous demand for childcare workers, but the job is not considered high-skill (we’d beg to differ) and it’s definitely not high-wage.

The logical perception among CTE administrators—most of whom, unlike Palombit, have specialties outside of FCS—is that they’re more likely to secure funds for higher-paying vocations. So even though it meets the letter of the law, early childhood education doesn’t attract funding proportionate to its broader importance.

That’s great news if you’re running a middle-school computer lab. It’s not so great if you’re a middle-schooler who wants to run a daycare when you grow up and/or, it should be noted, a future parent who might send their kid to that daycare.

So federal funds end up in programs designed to train the next generation of programmers. State funds go to English class, training students to take state-administered standardized tests. And classes focused on teaching practical skills, which fall outside of the skill, wage, demand trichotomy, evaporate.

Adults and children both pay the price for their lack of life skills, which brings us to the “Uber for…” companies. Need someone to build that IKEA bookcase? Reserve a TaskRabbit. Don’t know how to cook? Blue Apron is there to deliver pre-portioned ingredients and specific instructions, and DoorDash is there if even that is too much work. The number of online platforms like these more than tripled between 2016 and 2018.

But you can only use these services if you can afford them. A recent search of Handy found that hanging up some pictures would require reserving a gig worker for 2 hours for $133.65. Selepak’s grandfather (and probably yours) would not approve, and anyone living paycheck to paycheck (that would be over half of Americans) would have to think twice. So simple household tasks go undone. In a limited sense—Reagan deserves the bulk of the blame or credit for the current status quo—this is the cost of progress toward gender equality and attempted progress towards class mobility.

In the 1960s, more women were leaving the home to pursue outside careers. In response, the professionalization of home economics began. The Vocational Act of 1963 sought to save home ec by making it part of federally funded vocational training, emphasizing its domestic and professional relevance. Thirteen years later, new laws dedicated funding specifically to programs “that encourage males and females to prepare for combining homemaking and wage-earning roles.”

This need to make home economics relevant to the workplace was the beginning of the decline of a field that’s heyday coincided with a much clearer notion of gendered responsibility, which, though unfair and sexist, resulted in real value being placed on domestic acumen.

Back then, boys took industrial arts classes like metal and wood shop while girls took home economics. But eventually, the growing number of career options for women meant it was no longer assumed that every girl would grow into a woman whose primary role was a homemaker.

I spoke to professional men from around the country for this article. None of them expressed a sense that they’d been deprived of learning something important.

For men, there was a parallel rise in white-collar job opportunities, from 25 percent of total jobs in 1920 to 62 percent in 2000. Their more limited domestic responsibilities were similarly devalued, and paying someone else to do it became socially acceptable, as service worker jobs increased from 3.5 to 13 percent of the economy.

It’s no coincidence that college enrollment grew from 25.7 percent of young people in 1970 to 40.5 percent in 2015. That trend also means that there tends to be a pro-college bias among the legislators and administrators in charge of the few remaining FCS programs, which devalues practical skills colleges don’t care about.

Even some institutions of higher learning are now acknowledging the problem. Shepherds College in Union Grove, Wisconsin, offers a course called Daily Living, which focuses on helping students “achieve appropriate independence in areas of healthcare, self-medication, home care and maintenance, and home and community safety.” It’s a basic FCS curriculum, the equivalent of a university letting in students who couldn’t do basic arithmetic and then offering it as a class to help them catch up.

Thankfully, the tough environment for family and consumer sciences hasn’t killed it. But if FCS is to return to its former prominence, it’s going to take a leap of faith from decision-makers at all levels of government to understand the importance of life skills for everyone — even absent hard data — and come up with the money to fund it.

Perkins V passed with bipartisan support last year. It included lots of tweaks—“high demand” became “in demand,” for instance—and also added “employability skills,” a term that commonly refers to skills that any employee in any industry should have, to the core purposes of the law. This suggests that, after years of neglect, the “holistic perspective” advocated by Turgeson and others might start attracting some funding.

Working against them? A lack of outrage from the people who have been cheated by these policies. I spoke to male professionals from around the country for this article. None of them expressed a sense that they’d been deprived of learning something important or that they felt unprepared for the world coming out of high school. Not knowing basic skills is the new normal.

But there is a glimmer of hope that some of these skills are undergoing an organic comeback among young people. Etsy is full of items, from needlepoint to wooden furniture, made by hand by tech-savvy young people. Knitting is increasingly popular among the younger set that populates Ravelry, an online knitting community with 8 million members. And the Right to Repair movement, which advocates against laws preventing consumers from fixing their own electronics, is gaining momentum with its Sandersesque commitment to “fighting for working people.” A generation largely separated from manual labor seems to be coming around, slowly but surely.

The tip of the spear? Food. Farm-to-table cooking, home brewing, backyard smokers, sous vide, and Bourdain-style gustatory adventures are all popular with middle- and upper-middle-class millennials. And these things require skills—the sort that used to be taught in classes largely populated by women. Today, men and women are both more excited to pick up culinary skills than perhaps ever before.

It’s not just a practical matter. Learning these skills requires adults to focus on their hands, put down their devices, and step away from the striving mentality endemic to their generation. It also provides parents of young children, who may be learning with them, the chance to pass down the knowledge they did not receive when they were children. But it remains far from a given that millennials know how to cook, much less fix the oven.

So here’s a hint: Make sure you put some water in the pot before you try to cook the pasta.

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