Saving the Home from Martha Stewart

By Austin, Elizabeth | The Washington Monthly, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Saving the Home from Martha Stewart


Austin, Elizabeth, The Washington Monthly


It may sound old-fashioned, but teaching Home Ec is common sense

CAN WHIP UP A BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE-and-mandarin orange cheesecake good enough to rub in your hair. I can do exquisite white-on-white embroidery, fashioning elaborate flowers and glossy leaves from a skein of thread. Yet I don't think I could plan, purchase, and prepare a week's worth of family meals or sew a simple dress if you held a gun to my head. When it comes to homemaking, I am an idiot savant.

No big deal, right? I mean, isn't that why God created cleaning ladies and Chinese restaurants? When a smart gal can pull down big bucks in the workplace, does it really matter if she doesn't do her laundry until she runs out of clean underwear?

Yes. In fact, I think it matters a great deal. Because I'm not alone. There are millions of men and women of my generation who are missing a whole cluster of basic life skills, who simply don't know how to iron a shirt, replace a button, paint a wall, or even scrub a toilet properly. We don't have the basic competence to run our homes smoothly and efficiently, so we can't pass down those skills to the next generation. And our functional illiteracy on the domestic front is having a devastating effect on our society. With the rise of Martha Stewart and the many Martha wannabes, we've created a strange culture of domestic elitism, in which only women who have the means to hire household help have the leisure to learn household skills. So those who can least afford expensive processed foods are the least able to prepare a nutritious stew or bake a loaf of bread.

But there's a simple solution to all this. To fight rampant consumerism, to reduce the divorce rate, to diminish child abuse, to prevent cancer and heart disease, and to ensure domestic tranquility, this is all we have to do: Bring back home economics.

Home Wrecks

All right. I can hear you snickering out there. You think home ec is trivial. Home ec is stupid. Home ec is sexist.

Well, if that's what you believe, just take a look at the core subjects in the home economics curriculum--child development, nutrition, personal health, personal finance, and consumer protection. Publishers make millions putting out books and magazines to feed our insatiable national appetite for information on all these topics. Of the 25 books currently leading Amazon.com's sales, nine of them would fit comfortably into any basic home ec reading list.

Everywhere you look, you see American families desperately in need of help with the basics of daily life. Consider our national epidemic of obesity, with 55 percent of American adults now overweight--due, in large part, to our increasing reliance on high-fat, high-sugar convenience foods. Our rapidly expanding national waistline is a major cause of heart disease and several deadly cancers. Perhaps most disturbingly, one in five children between ages six and 17 is overweight, and the number of overweight children in the United States has doubled over the past 30 years. If current trends continue, nearly half of today's children will eventually die of heart disease. Yet how many parents know the number of calories contained in a McDonald's cheeseburger Happy Meal? (It's 680, if you're interested.) And how many of those parents could tell you how many calories the average 5-year-old needs each day to stay healthy? (About 1,700).

We're equally inept when it comes to balancing our checkbooks. Despite our unprecedented economic expansion, there's been an explosion of personal bankruptcy, with some 1.4 million Americans filing for bankruptcy last year alone. That figure has almost tripled over the past decade. It's no wonder this magazine has devoted years to the quixotic promotion of Cheap Chic, trying to make it fashionable to cut up our credit cards and spend less. But how can you ask uneducated consumers to content themselves with cheaper products and pass up the overpriced name brands and designer labels, when price is their only basis for judging quality? …

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