COVID-19 uncertainties provide a cultural moment for re-evaluating what really constitutes the good life. While the mandatory homecoming of sorts drags on, it sheds fresh and favorable light on home economies of simplicity and some measure of self-sufficiency. Stay-at-home orders instruct us all in the lessons once learned in that bygone class called Home-Ec, and its mate, Shop Class.
As most of the country adjusts to home-centered life for the time being, the constant flow of how-to articles for crisis homeschoolers and the social media posts of flustered or flourishing parents reveal the difficulty of this transition. My reflections here are not intended to downplay these challenges, nor to minimize the suffering, isolation, or unemployment experienced by so many. But rather, I offer these reflections as an invitation to find in this quarantine, lessons for restructuring the home economy.
Home-Ec History Lesson: Originally Taught at Home, Then Outsourced to School, Now What?
Shelter-in-place orders that have in some way impacted roughly 95% of Americans bring us to fulfill our many responsibilities concurrently in the same place—our own homes. This is largely a new experience for modern society, but quite familiar to generations of pre-industrial humans whose economic, social, and educational lives centered on home and community. In that environment, lessons in self-sufficiency, household thrift, the efficient production of goods, preservation of foods, maintenance and repairs flowed quite naturally from hearth and home.
As industrialization and specialization shifted the locus of economic production from home to factory and children spent more time in school, household management and domestic duties underwent a parallel professionalization, in hopes of “giving women opportunities outside the home while simultaneously uplifting the value of ‘women’s work’ in society.”
Early proponents formed the American Home Economics Association in 1908, and worked to apply “scientific principles to domestic topics–good nutrition, pure foods, proper clothing, physical fitness, sanitation, and efficient practices that would allow women more time for pursuits other than cooking and cleaning.” The hope was that such home efficiencies might give more time for education and liberate women from housework. Thus was born Home-Ec Class.
Despite its original popularity with progressives, by the 1960s Home-Ec was a feminist pariah and “most high schools and colleges stopped requiring and in many cases offering the classes.” Home-Ec survived the feminist attacks in some quarters where it was already co-ed, and in other quarters by adopting a co-ed model taught in conjuction with Shop Class, another dying art. 21st century budgetary strains, the push for computer literacy, and the ascendancy of standardized testing further eliminated such non-academic courses from the curriculum for most students across the country.
With life-skills training outsourced from family to school during the process of industrialization, and the subsequent elimination of such courses from the school curriculum in recent decades, many Americans don’t have the faintest idea of how to bake a cake, or fix a faucet. Under quarantine, skills such as these regain their importance.
Suddenly, a simple family-centered household economy with all members contributing their skills and knowledge no longer looks stale and limiting; it looks smart and liberating. Stay-at-home measures provide a chance to overcome second-wave feminist aversions to home-based work and productivity–for both men and women–that are baked into the narratives of mainstream culture with its glorification of career, wealth and changing the world, and its accompanying diminution of family, contentment and the ordinary.
Pandemic restrictions offer families an opportunity to rethink the significant trade-offs that are made when so much of what could be normal household economic activity is outsourced in order to maintain a career-centered life. Consider the recent live-streamed NFL Draft, where America observed coaches and athletes relishing the moments at home with family. Countless coaches are treasuring this time at home, reconnecting with their kids and wives, and finding the environment conducive to “clean thinking.”
This is just one of many examples of how sheltering in place forces us to slow down. It provides a practice run with working from home and a picture of what simple home productivity might look like. For some, it might offer the best of both worlds, as moms and dads end up spending more time in the home, with each other, and with their kids, learning life-lessons, acquiring handyman know-how, building family bonds, and saving money in the process. Here are some lessons the coronavirus crash-course in Home-Ec and Shop Class offers.
the food industrialists have…persuaded millions of consumers to prefer food that is already prepared. They will grow, deliver and cook your food for you and (just like your mother) beg you to eat it.” Being an industrial eater, Berry contends, can contribute to “a kind of cultural amnesia that is misleading and dangerous. (pg. 146-147)
1. Participate in food production to the extent that you can. If you have a yard or even just a porch box or a pot in a sunny window, grow something to eat in it….You will appreciate it fully, having known it all its life.
2. Prepare your own food. This means reviving in your own mind and life the arts of kitchen and household. This should enable you to eat more cheaply, and it will give you a measure of ‘quality control’: you will have some reliable knowledge of what has been added to the food you eat. (pg. 150)
The arts of kitchen and household, as Berry calls them, are being rediscovered at this juncture, not as demeaning tasks of drudgery, but as deeply satisfying and meaningful crafts. In this time of great stress and uncertainty, people are realizing how such tasks are inherently gratifying, economically beneficial, and solidifying for familial bonds. One can hope that these lessons in the ordinary pleasures of a simple home economy will be enjoyed and valued after the pandemic passes.
Pandemic Shop Class Lesson: Maintenance and Meaning
Here also, at-home tasks that require both physical and mental work are returning to prominence and being reclaimed for their essential importance, physical meaning, and financial sense. Matthew Crawford, in his notable Shopclass as Soulcraft writes:
What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part. So perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world. (pg. 2)
In an unanticipated way, certainly now the time is ripe for a reconsideration of such manual competence as Crawford suggests. He continues:
The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. (pg. 15)
But besides the economic value and contentment found in making and maintaining physical things, Crawford also keenly notes how such manual engagement with material reality keeps us properly oriented towards the world as embodied creatures. He states: “man’s interactions with his world through his hands… [by] building things, fixing things, and routinely tending to things, [is] an element of human flourishing.” (pg. 63-64) Finding ways to retain and regain this anchored experience of being in the world, in post-pandemic society will be essential.
The coronavirus crash-course in Home-Ec and Shop Class offers a path towards a more sustainable and satisfying home economy, placing the family–not the individual–in its rightful place as the central unit of society. Marcia Barlow summarizes aptly:
The family unit is able to do more when it combines its abilities, rather than an individual, alone, endeavoring to tackle various challenges….The nature of family allows it to intimately know the people involved and allow the resources to go to their highest and best use. Being the most efficient, a family would be more likely to produce a surplus of financial, human and social resources that could flow to the society at large.
Such humanely scaled home efforts can still thrive, enabling family members, communities and societies to thrive. The glimpses of home-centered productivity, ingenuity and restful pleasure hidden along the edges of the pandemic reveal the power inherent in the family structure, and in humanity’s creative nature. The rush of high-powered career-life loses some of its allure when compared to the deep satisfactions of creating things by hand, and the simplicity of a family-centered life.
Even before the pandemic, Cameron LeBlanc noted in 2019, “some of these skills are undergoing an organic comeback among young people.” He explained:
Etsy is full of items, from needlepoint to wooden furniture, made by hand by tech-savvy young people. Knitting is increasingly popular among the younger set that populates Ravelry, the online knitting community with 8 million members. And the Right to Repair movement, which advocates against laws preventing consumers from fixing their own electronics, is gaining momentum. A generation largely separated from manual labor seems to be coming around, slowly but surely. The tip of the spear? Food. Farm-to-table cooking, home brewing, backyard smokers, sous vide, and Bourdain-style gustatory adventures are all popular. …And these things require skills — the sort that used to be taught in classes largely populated by women. Today, men and women are both getting excited.
Perhaps even more relevant to the family and home economy themes of this essay, LeBlanc suggests,
Learning these skills requires adults to focus on their hands, put down their devices, and step away from the striving endemic to their generation. Learning these skills also provides parents of young children, who may be learning with them, to pass down some knowledge they may have not received as children.
The handmade revival LeBlanc describes, coupled with home-economy re-considerations sparked by coronavirus offer a compelling alternative to autonomous lives consumed by careers. Perhaps we find here echoes of Wendell Berry’s advice from a 2013 speech: “We…must think again of reverence, humility, affection, familiarity, neighborliness, cooperation, thrift, appropriateness, local loyalty. These terms return us to the best of our heritage. They bring us home.” (pg. 64)
COVID-19 has indeed brought us home. In such a time as this, we are all-the-more reminded of the family’s economic and social potency. Developing the household arts and useful trades within the context of a simple family-centered home economy has generations of proof, and still can be recovered for the good of individuals and for the good of society. Individuals will find themselves rightly restored in the proper ordering of the family, and society will benefit from families thriving and functioning rightly again.