Home Economics: Not a preparatory course for wives-to-beBy Linda B. Bolido
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Derisively dubbed “home eco-nanay” by boys in grade school and high school, home economics (HE) has always been thought of as a subject that aimed simply to prepare girls for their eventual roles as wives, mothers and homemakers.
It was one of the traditional symbols of the gender divide. Basic education sent girls to HE to learn cooking, sewing, flower arranging and other skills that would enhance their “value” to prospective grooms. Boys, of course, did shop work (although it is a mystery how many Filipino wives actually have seen evidence that their husbands learned useful skills from those classes).
Dean Adelaida Mayo of the University of the Philippines College of Home Economics (UP CHE) says HE in basic education is quite different from HE as a college course.
“Elementary and high school HE focuses on applied skills. It does not go deep into the context and relevance of the subject,” she says.
At UP CHE, home economics is not a wife preparatory course. So, while other schools have rebranded or camouflaged HE by calling it different names, UP has proudly carried the name for half a century and will continue to do so for the next 50 years and beyond.
UP is one of only three tertiary education institutions—all of them government-run—that still have CHEs, the others being Bulacan State University and Western Mindanao State University. Benguet State University now calls it College of Home Economics and Technology.
Actually, given the history of the course and the story of its acknowledged founder, Ellen Swallow Richards, HE was never meant to be just a discipline to train women for wifely duties.
Nancy Kwallek, writing for Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society’s Forum, said Richards was the first woman to graduate, in 1873, from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the first woman professional chemist in the United States. Richards called the field she initiated “home ecology,” before ecology became a popular term, because it was meant to cover not just the housewifely skills of cooking, sewing, knitting, embroidery and flower arranging but to encompass every facet affecting the home environment and even the community.
Richards’ Summer Institute of Euthenics was a center for studies in families, child psychology, child nutrition and methods of education. She developed ways to teach working-class families how to prepare nutritious but low-cost meals. She campaigned for better hygiene procedures in Boston schools and the promotion of public health and environmentally responsible living conditions.
Thus, HE education at UP is described by the college as “a field of study which integrates concepts, skills, principles and theories of different fundamental skills of home economics.” UP CHE teaches decision-making and household resource management skills. “It takes into serious consideration the interaction between the material and relational aspects of day-to-day living and the use of science and technology for the well-being of people and their environments.”
More than just practical skills, CHE courses cover smart consumerism, financial literacy and entrepreneurship. Students are taught to reuse, reduce and recycle as much as possible to protect the environment.
This is why HE at UP, even when it was still under a department of the College of Education, has always been coeducational, Mayo says. Of course, in the past, given the stereotypes about the course, boys would not be caught dead in a home economics class.
Mayo says the college and all the programs under it aim “to enhance day-to-day living, improve the quality of life of Filipino families and support institutions and communities.”
But, although the college’s HE education course is designed for both sexes—integrating the different areas of HE: clothing and related arts, food preparation and service, food science and technology and nutrition—it was not until 1968 that it had its first male graduate, the only one that year.
With UP being the national university, fields that other educational institutions overlook or simply do not find financially rewarding are covered by CHE.
Thus, the extremely popular course Hotel and Restaurant Management, which draws droves of students visualizing themselves working in swanky hotels and five-star restaurants, has been refashioned into Hotel, Restaurant and Institution Management.
In training people primarily for middle management level positions, Mayo says graduates are not only well-grounded in business and hotel work, but also in the administration of food services like those for schools, orphanages and even prison facilities or “wherever there are lodging and dining facilities.”
The Department of Food Science and Nutrition, one of two pioneering units of the college, is not just about food safety and good nutrition but also about helping households manage their resources, teaching communities how to develop nutritious but low-cost meals, and developing convenient, ready-to-eat foods in times of calamity. It explores ways to use indigenous resources to meet Filipinos’ nutritional needs.
Students of community nutrition are taught how to spot and measure symptoms of a poor diet like below standard heights, below or higher than standard weights, etc.
The Department of Clothing, Textiles and Interior Design is doing research on indigenous fabrics and designing clothes for power dressing, as well as for different weather conditions in the Philippines, among other things.
Interior design students have applied their training and skills in livening up such places as the National Children’s Hospital, Epheta Foundation (which provides a workplace and living spaces for the blind), Habitat for Humanity homes, the Golden Acres center for the elderly, and the Reception and Study Center for Children of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, using patterns and designs adapted to the institutions.
Mayo, whose background is in interior design, says students are taught that interior design is not just about aesthetics. In a restaurant, for instance, “interior design can enhance taste” and the dining experience, she points out.
The Department of Family Life and Child Development aims to provide theoretical and practical training for competent practice and leadership not just for those two areas but also for preschool education.
Mayo says the bottom line is HE is about improving the quality of life and goes beyond the public face of the course—sewing, cooking, decorating (although one graduate reportedly told her students that would-be surgeons, men or women, would benefit from having the skill to sew).
Mayo says HE remains very important and relevant because it is about everyday living. For instance, with the increase in the number of male-headed households, men will find it especially useful now when they need to learn about household management, she says.
It seems that men are beginning to get the message. Last school year, UP CHE graduated more than 200 women and 35 men. Every year, more males, not just those with feminine inclinations, are entering the College of Home Economics and are proud of it.