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‘Home economics’ is as much needed today as it was in yesteryear
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

Savannah Wegner and her 12 colleagues that teach the family and consumer science curriculum at the five Manteca Unified comprehensive high schools constitute Jeff Bezos’ worst nightmare.  They are also a reason why you should feel comfortable doubling down on public education.

They are at the vanguard of efforts to inspire young people to unlock their potential and make the connection that the art of learning is the root of success in everything you do whether it is a career, relationships, self-fulfillment or saving the world. And in doing so they expose them to skills that will allow them to resist the pitches of the tech-era P.T. Barnum clones that built mega-obscene fortunes on the simple premise of suckering nickels out of tens of millions of people every minute.

If that sounds like heady praise for a high school curriculum once called home economics that has been rebranded as family and consumer science. Let’s go back to the good old days of the late 19th century, that is when a woman by the name of Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards gave birth to the modern home economics movement.

Before you start snickering and have flashbacks to 1950s era TV commercials and magazines ads that had women decked out in dresses with the prerequisite waist apron while wearing high heels and looked like they just got back from the beauty parlor smiling as they pulled a roast from an oven, you really need to stop watching TV Land. Instead you might want to do what Wegner has her students do — hit the proverbial books for scholarly research that can’t be done on Twitter.

You will find it that one of the reasons we are living longer and doing so in a healthier manner is because of the academic discipline that many of us dismiss with a snicker — home economics.

Richards approached “home life” with the trained eye of an environment chemist as well as an industrial safety engineer, of which she was both. She paved the way for the discipline of home economics driven not by a desire to have prize winning pies as many of us have cluelessly relegated home economics as being, but to improve health and lives.

Her experiments in Massachusetts where she was the first woman ever admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after she became the first American woman to earn a chemistry degree — which she did from Vassar College — led to modern drinking water standards the establishment of municipal sanitation sewage systems.

Richards was the first to apply chemistry to food and nutrition. Her research and books on the subject inspired laws that led to the establishment of such public health institutions we take for granted today such as the United States Drug and Food Administration.

Richards also was among the first to get that pollution impacts air quality. Her experiments led to the use of natural gas in lieu of coal to warm homes plus the use of fans to circulate air and exchange it with fresher air from outside.

She did this all as the result of her desire to apply science to the home.

Wegner and her colleagues stress paying attention to the details whether it is sanitation or following steps to turning the puzzle pieces gathered as a recipe and turn them into a culinary work of art.

The bottom line of home economics — longer lives and healthier living — is arguably just as rewarding, if not more so, than mastering advance calculus.

Better yet, Wegner and others that teach family and consumer science help drive home the theories and real-world applications of what their colleagues in language arts, science, and math strive to teach.

You can’t create lumpia, Hawaiian rice, or even cookies without employing skills such as reading, writing, math, science and reasoning. You also need soft skills such as proper management of time and how to interact with people. They are things that aren’t driven nearly as effectively in English literature even if you are teamed up with a classmate on a project as it is in culinary arts as you can see — and taste — the result of every right step and miscue you make.

You might begrudgingly accept the value of family and consumer science, but how can it possibly be the bane of the get rich kings of the Internet?

That’s where life management and adult living classes come into play.

They are a mixture of how to cope with the daily nuances of living and how to make your money work as hard as you do classes.

The classes give students a dose of reality — the cost of living, whether it is renting, buying clothes or even dining out.

Take eating as an example.

The Jeff Bezos of the universe took what the Ray Krocs of the world created and turned convenience into an even bigger money losing proposition for consumers lulled into submission that life is better by tapping one’s finger. Kroc gave us McDonalds’s and arguably lower quality hamburgers and a higher cost than preparing them on our own, while those that operate in the disruptive economy created by the Amazon approach have extorted even more money from people doing a basic needed to survive — eating — by allowing them to satisfy hunger pains with an app.

Students get their eyes opened wide when they realize Grub Hub is more like Grab Money. It’s a new economic morality take on the old “you can give a man a fish so he can eat for a day or teach him how to fish so he can eat for a lifetime” colloquialism. Roll your eyes in your correct belief that is just common sense but you’d be forgetting two things: The “fish” example has been floating around for centuries while someone — and it isn’t teens, most of whom don’t earn a weekly paycheck — is fueling the costly app driven food delivery service.

The “give a man a fish” versus “teaching him to fish” is an apt description of consumer and family science and what is taking place in Wegner’s class at East Union High.

Keep in mind as well that 50 percent of the course time in culinary arts is structured strongly enough in academics that units granted meet requirements to count toward admission at the University of California.

Ellen Henrietta Swanson Richards would be proud of the Manteca Unified School District for treating the 21st century version of “home economics” as robustly as they do.