Graham drops a bit more history:
If any single person could be said to be the founder of home economics, it is the formidable Ellen Swallow Richards, a Bostonian who was the first woman admitted to MIT. She served as the first president of the American Home Economics Association and was instrumental in coming up with the term "home economics," officially adopted at a conference "for the betterment of the home" in 1899, just in time for the dawn of a scientifically minded century. Though it may now seem impossible, the discipline was originally rooted in progressive and even feminist thinking. The idea was to bring scientific rigor into the home, and to professionalize women’s domestic work, bringing dignity and efficiency to both.
To rebuff this cadre of holdouts within America's schools, the food industry mobilized in two ways, Moss reports. First up was rolling out a school marmish figure called "Betty Crocker"—invented by the marketing department of the company that would become General Mills to extol the wholesomeness and ease of processed crap. The other move was a kind of leveraged buyout of the home ec trade itself: first by pouring money into grants and fellowships for the American Home Economics Association—$288,250 in 1957 alone, Moss writes—and then by "sponsoring candidates for the organization's top leadership posts, candidates who would bring a decidedly pro-industrial view to home economics."
And that is how home ec became the piece-of-instant-cake elective that I so idly enjoyed in the '80s.
But imagine a home ec that taught basic skills like how to prepare a simple pureed vegetable soup, whip up a quick, easy, and much-cheaper-than-bottled salad dressing, or stock up a pantry with inexpensive bulk staples?
Food isn't the only sphere in which millions of American adults—and the kids they are raising—find themselves swimming in a sea of ignorance, at the mercy of an industry peddling dubious wares. Another one is personal finance, as Helene Olen shows in her indispensable 2013 book Pound Foolish. Over the past two decades, what Olen calls the "personal finance industrial complex" has fooled Americans into such follies as leveraging their futures with deceptively pricey credit cards, dumping hard-earned savings into that casino called the stock market, and buying houses they can't afford and too often can't hold on
In doing so, the industry has made personal finance into something that seems impossibly complex—what the hell is a variable annuity?—and then presented gurus who simplify it along lines convenient for itself. All of that is nonsense, Olen shows. After an interviewingher about what he sees as the "financial industry's most basic dilemma," that the "best advice fits on a 3×5 index card and is available for free at the library," University of Chicago social scientist Harold Pollack actually scribbled out that card. Check it out—it's mostly about saving as much as possible and avoiding the fees of Wall Street charlatans. If those simple principles could be drummed into the heads of high school students, imagine the misery that could be avoided. And what better forum for it than new-wave home ec? After all, the home ec curricula of yore included lessons on household finance.
A revived curriculum could be broader than just food and money, Graham notes. "Even sewing is gaining a certain relevance, as consumers grow increasingly wary of disposable garments made in unregulated factories overseas," she writes. "An ambitious class could also include things like basic household plumbing or car repair." I certainly could have used those skills (though auto mechanics have gotten so complex that I think "How to choose a reliable car you can afford—or get by without one altogether" might be a better theme.)