Depending on your age, you may remember a school course called Home Economics. Or perhaps you knew it as Family and Consumer Science or “FCS.”
Or maybe you don’t know it at all; the subject that once taught young people how to live is rapidly disappearing from Maine schools.
Even back in the 50s, home economics could be a hard sell for students.
Girl A: “What are you taking?”
Girl B: “Well, I have to fill one science requirement, and English…and I want to take Home Economics…”
Girl A interrupts snidely: “Home Economics? Why in the world do you want to take Home Ec.?”
This short film for high schoolers from 1955 spends the next nine minutes answering that question. Here’s the take away:
“You’ll always be faced with the problems of maintaining a home for yourself. And you will find that your Home Ec. training has given you an understanding of how to be a better home maker, both for yourself, and others who depend upon you.”
If the film is anything to go by, a fully supported Home Ec. curriculum while primarily aimed at girls, also welcomed many boys into the classroom. It covered training in everything from cooking, nutrition, and clothing construction, to how to manage money. It also taught students how to implement “democratic practices” into family decision making, how to manage a business, even create plans for building a house. And it taught students how get along nicely with other people.
“Those are real life things that you can apply, that parents may not always teach children and just assume that they’re going to figure out on their own,” says Eric Brooks, a teacher at RSU 18 in Belgrade.
Brooks’ district no longer offers a Family and Consumer Science class. Brooks also heads the state chapter of Family, Career and Community Leaders of America or FCCLA. Again, depending on your age, you may remember that by its former name, Future Homemakers of America. Its membership is made up of schools with students interested in FCS.
“We’re down to one school and at one point, there were over 500 members in the state of Maine,” he says.
Brooks says there has been a stigma attached to FCS classes for decades. He himself broke a lingering gender barrier by taking the course while he was in school. Now, he says he struggles to understand why anyone would object to the program or why schools would cut it. With both credit card debt, and childhood diabetes at unprecedented levels, Brooks says kids need more practical life skills.
“Those need to be mandated in Maine so that students are graduating high school with some sort of background in financial literacy, and cooking, culinary skills, or child development, and in order to do that we need an FCS program back in the state,” says Brooks.
In most schools around Maine, many of the key classes formerly associated with FCS have been absorbed to some degree by other classes, such as health and physical education.
Other schools, such as Mt Blue High School in Farmington, while significantly downgraded from what it was 50 years ago, still offers a more intact FCS class.
It’s run by Betsy Brady, who is one of the last people to graduate in the 80s from UMaine Farmington with an FCS degree — something you can no longer do from any accredited school in Maine.
“And so when UMF lost their program it started to send a message across the state that it wasn’t important,” Brady says. “And so now, there’s a lot of teachers that are retiring and they can’t find people to fill, because we haven’t had the background for the education- we haven’t had a real degree program for a long time in Maine.”
Today, Brady’s students are concocting recipes for smoothies. Several of the kids, Syara and her friend Caitlyn, say it’s the one class they really love coming to but they’re taking it seriously.
Syara: “More hands on kind of learning than most classrooms usually give out — like how we have to know our credit score in order to get loans on things, and stuff like that.”
Jennifer Mitchell: “So money management?”
Caityln: “We have a lot coming when we’re older that we need to be prepared for.”
Senior Skyler Gordon is headed to Central Maine Community College next year. He says prior to taking the school’s nutrition class, he had no clue how to prepare a healthful meal.
“Oh definitely,” says Gordon. “I think I’ll definitely be able to cook a lot more recipes, like other than ramen noodles (laughs). Without taking Miss Brady’s class I probably would have been just in the dark searching for the light.”
It may surprise some, who might think of the class as a redundant relic of an unequal time, to learn that FCS has its roots in 19th century feminism, with Ellen Swallow Richards, the first American Home Economics Association president. She was also the first woman to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Richards argued that science education was essential to living well. She even had a food science exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where she had calculated the nutritional and chemical breakdown of all the foods on offer so customer could see what they were eating. Richards was also an outspoken proponent of equality in education, and she created the first school lunch programs in Boston.