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Can Schools Teach My Kids to Cook Again?

Photograph by Twenty20

As I was doing the laundry yesterday, carefully reading the instructions on the tag hanging from my daughter's fake leather shorts, I do what I often do while performing household chores: I said a silent thank you to Mrs. Mesec, my home economics teacher from seventh grade. I can still picture her, hands on hips and glasses perched on her nose as she admonished us, "Read before you wash!"

I not only learned how to do laundry in Mrs. Mesec's class, but how to make a grilled cheese sandwich and how to sew a gym bag. It's not that I hadn't learned any basic household chores at home, but as the youngest of five I often felt that by the time it was my turn to be taught the ways of the world, my tired parents just crossed their fingers and hoped I'd marry someone who was really handy with a can opener and a frying pan.

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Of course, my own kids don't have a Mrs. Mesec to teach them how to hand-wash a sweater, because home economics classes were eliminated from our school district's curriculum years ago. This was due to budget cuts, but mostly as a result of the backlash against the classes for being gender-specific and perpetuating the 1950s housewife stereotype. And while it's true that there were mostly girls in my class, at 11 years old I wasn't so much concerned with the sexist implications of the curriculum as I was grateful that I was getting to make an apple pie instead of having to conjugate verbs in French class.

Shop classes survived many more years but they too began to get phased out in the early 2000s and were eventually completely eliminated from our state's schools; it was a move that met a lot of resistance in my district comprised of many working-class families.

Her son had found something he could make a living at, and by eliminating the program the school was showing how little they valued anything other than an academic pursuit.

I remember a meeting that I attended when the phase-outs first began. A mother got up to speak about how much this was going to hurt her son. She told the crowd, in a wavering voice, how being in shop class had help him finally find something he was passionate about—fixing cars—and the pride he had in what he was doing. She said that her son had found something he could make a living at, and by eliminating the program the school was showing how little they valued anything other than an academic pursuit. She begged board members to reconsider and to keep in mind kids like hers who might not be going to Princeton or Harvard but had found something they loved to do that gave their life meaning. There wasn't a dry eye in the room when she finished talking.

And she was right. According to recent figures, 75 percent of the students in California will not attend a university, yet they are taking classes that will help them get into UC and California State schools. Where does that leave the kids who want to fix cars, or become chefs or build furniture? Why is the desire to learn a trade so looked down on in our society? According to statistics, there is a higher probability of a kid becoming employed in a skilled trade than for becoming a professional sports player, yet there is vast funding for sports programs in our nation's schools.

(The same can be said for visual and performing arts classes that have seen vigorous cuts in the past few years, and are often not considered "serious pursuits.")

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I say we bring back home economics and shop classes. Eliminate any gender requirement, and modernize home ec by emphasizing real-world skills like cooking in your dorm-room's microwave, balancing a checkbook online and not only washing, but designing your own fake leather shorts. Shop class could teach not only how to fix cars, but how to design cars and innovate fuel alternatives.

Although, some old-world skills would be appreciated too—I certainly wouldn't mind if someone would teach my girls how to make a killer grilled cheese sandwich.

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