The increasingly common perception about schooling is that it’s all about getting a job — that if it doesn’t have a vocational purpose, it isn’t relevant. And yet schools, together with family, teach young people about social norms and values and how to live in more thoughtful ways. This includes how to be an intelligent consumer. For decades, home economics has been part of this important element of education, but its place in Canadian schools is under threat.
According to the International Federation for Home Economics, it is an area of study that brings together many different ways to “read” the world through food, health, financial, consumer and environmental literacies. It is a multidisciplinary field that “connects elements such as knowledge, skills, culture, systems, and behaviours to enhance quality of life.”
The first home economics programs were introduced in Ontario in the 1890s, viewed as a way to train young people to cope with the changes that came with industrialization. According to the British Columbia educators Gale Smith and Mary Leah de Zwart, the focus then included health and hygiene, and an emphasis on the importance of education for women.
In today’s home economics classes, young people still sew and prepare food. Students acquire a better understanding of (and hopefully an appreciation for) the art of construction or the making of an item.
But the home economics classroom is about more than making. Young people learn about design, mindfulness, food sustainability and textile production, and the impact of our food, clothing and shelter decisions on the environment. Thus, knowing how to make a particular dish or garment also requires knowing how a food or fabric is produced and the associated supply chain needed to get the items to where we shop. There is an attempt to understand the use of chemicals and particular processes that have a heavy impact on our health, on workers’ health and on the natural environment.
The home economics classroom is about more than making. Young people learn about design, mindfulness, food sustainability and textile production, and the impact of our food, clothing and shelter decisions on the environment.
Knowing what human and environmental resources are used to make something makes for a critical consumer. The consumer in home economics terms is not a person who purchases needlessly. Rather, such a consumer will make a critical judgment about the quality of an item: what it is made from, how it is made, by whom and under what circumstances.
Sometimes being a savvy consumer means not buying what someone else is selling, because you have the skills to know that while it might be sold as cheap, it just isn’t a “good deal.” This element of home economics remains pivotal in the education of young people as they take the lead in making intelligent and sustainable decisions.
Unfortunately, there are few institutions in Canada that prepare home economics teachers or professionals. Undergraduate departments or schools have been closed and their resources sold or given to other disciplines. Academics aligned to home economics have had to reinvent themselves to fit into new structures, or they have simply disappeared. And schools are increasingly finding it difficult to find sufficiently trained home economics teachers in Canada and other Western countries.
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While home economics courses continue to be popular among students in certain jurisdictions, in some cases the subject has disappeared as an identifiable course of study. Its content has been fragmented and dispersed into two or more areas. For example, in British Columbia the content is mainly located in the Applied Design, Skills and Technology curriculum, with the nutrition and health education component included in Physical and Health Education. Home economics simply does not fit into curriculum development models that utilize narrowly defined disciplines.
Joyce Slater, of the University of Manitoba, identified a dramatic decline in that province from 2000 to 2010 in the enrolment of students in home economics classes between grades 7 and 12, due to a devaluing of food and nutrition education.
And yet at the same time, individuals and families in society are having a harder time taking care of themselves, partly because of a decline in food handling skills and financial literacy. There is a growing concern around both under- and over-nutrition, the impact of homelessness, especially on young people, and environmental degradation. Governments are increasingly being called on to address these and other concerns linked to everyday life. However, by the time a government agency or community group has to intervene, a person’s problems are often at a chronic or critical stage.
There is a way to build the capacity of individuals and families to care for themselves and others: home economics education. Policy-makers should support curriculums that focus on practical skills and should address the shortage of skilled home economics teachers. These measures would build capacity for individual and community well-being and contribute to the development of future generations of intelligent consumers.
This article is part of the Recalibrating Canada’s Consumer Rights Regime special feature.
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