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The Next Barbara Lynch? In this Sept. 25, 2009 file photo, high school senior Ahna Ramos, 17, stirs a pot of sweet potato and pear soup. Students in the Culinary Arts program at Lamar High School in Houston learn to prepare and serve meals in their school's cafe. (David J. Phillip/AP)

I am the youngest of seven children, and my father died one month before I was born. I grew up watching my mother juggle three jobs at a time to keep us off welfare. You could say that that instilled a strong work ethic.

But the 1970s were a turbulent and chaotic time to be a teenager in South Boston, especially for someone who wasn’t very disciplined and didn’t think much of academics. Because of the busing crisis, I was sent across town to Madison Park High in Roxbury; for a while, every day was just about survival. I didn’t go to many classes. But there was one that I never missed: Home Economics.

That’s partly because, from the time I was 12, I knew I wanted to be a chef. What that meant to me as a kid was that I might one day get to own a sub shop or a pub. There was one of each on every corner of my neighborhood, so I knew that meant I would always have a job.

Home Ec was where I discovered that cooking came naturally to me – that the kitchen was where I belonged.

In Home Ec, though, I came to realize that kitchens could mean more to me than a steady paycheck. Madison Park High had an incredible program that featured a student-run restaurant for the faculty. There, I very quickly discovered that cooking came naturally to me – that the kitchen was where I belonged. I instinctively knew, by smell, when a roast was ready to come out of the oven; I knew how dough should feel as I worked it with my hands. Plates came back to the kitchen clean – the teachers loved every bite! For the first time in my life, I felt good about myself at school.

Luckily, the program head, a professionally trained chef named Susan Logozzo, saw something in me. She convinced school administrators to let me do more than the minimum home economics requirement and keep learning in her kitchen. That kept me in school for four years, and it set me on my path to becoming a chef and restaurant owner.

Today, it’s a different world. It’s hard to find a school anywhere – in the suburbs or the city – that has a home economics program, and most children don’t grow up with a parent teaching them how to make family recipes or bake bread from scratch. Even though food is now “hot” – it’s sexy, it’s political, it’s entertaining – and even though we know we need to pay attention to what we eat and where it comes from, we have abandoned home economics courses in our school curricula.

School should do more than teach students to read and write … We need to expose them to a wide array of disciplines and give them a range of tools that will help them find success and satisfaction in life.

The result: We are denying a generation the chance to learn basic cooking skills. We are also denying countless young people the tools and the inspiration to forge a successful career path that might not include formal education beyond high school.

Growing up in the projects, I didn’t know anyone who went on to college. After high school, most people stayed in the neighborhood and found blue-collar jobs. Among other factors, they just couldn’t afford to go to college. And with today’s skyrocketing costs, that’s true for many people – which makes life skills and vocational training all the more essential in high school.

School should do more than teach students to read and write. It should do more than train them to pass year after year of standardized tests. If we really want to serve students well, we need to expose them to a wide array of disciplines and give them a range of tools that will help them find success and satisfaction in life. And that’s why it’s time to reassess how we prepare our young people for life. It’s time to come home to Home Ec.

Editor’s note:

In June 2012, Lynch spoke about her formative Home Ec experience in a TEDx Boston talk entitled “Back To The Basics: A chef shares how basic skills like cooking can educate and nourish children for a lifetime.”

Tags: Boston

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  • Courtney

    I agree wholeheartedly. I also think Home Ec classes could be the place to teach kids about personal finance, mortgages and credit. All of the life lessons and crafts that are not necessarily passed on by parents in a structured and even manner across the population. How to successfully run a home – any kind of home – is an extremely useful skill, no matter your income or education level after high school.

  • jefe68

    I’ll add that there are not enough trade related programs as well.
    I remember my High School had a fully equipped wood shop and a auto mechanics class. All those kids did have the best cars…

  • trixie

    a strong case. the cult of school “reform” (bowing at the altar of standardized testing) has combined with other factors to lead to the demise of home ec, shop,and other valuable programs in our public school systems.

  • gertie

    And ‘way back in my mid 20th century high school there was a nursery school in the Home Economics Department. Of course only girls enrolled in that course, but at least some of us received some education and enlightenment about young children. Today to my knowledge–and I have not researched this–there are few such courses, Since so many people want to be parents–and ultimately become parents–it seems a few basic courses about child development would be a good and useful thing. And of course boys could enroll as well.

  • Mia

    I took one year of Home Ec in high school in the 60s, doing what I really loved – sewing. That love of the craft and the skills I learned in Home Ec have stayed with me ever since, and I never stopped sewing, even when it was unfashionable or un-cool to do so.

    As I remember it, Home Ec died in the 70s with the advent of the women’s movement and the demand that women be trained for more than just house & home. It was definitely unfashionable for women to take the courses, and men hadn’t yet accepted that they, too, could ands should learn to cook well and to sustain themselves & their families domestically. The curriculum was phased out due to lack of enrollment/interest.

    gertie and Courtney are correct – there is SO much that could be taught as a part of domestic skills, but current budget crises and, as trixie pointed out, the intense focus on standardized testing pushes out any skill acquisition that isn’t covered by the MCAS or other statewide testing.

    And jefe68 correctly states that schools used to have very active trades programs, complete with auto & wood (and metal) shops; in my high school, the trade program used to build 1 modest home each year in the community, with materials underwritten by community vendors and, of course, the labor was free. The local bank guaranteed a mortgage to any qualifying buyer, and at the end of the year the house was auctioned. That was REAL community involvement with the schools!

    What a shame that our children are not being exposed to those skills that don’t require a college degree and yet are much in demand when done well, with pride, and with quality.

  • Pat Stewart

    We are working to bring those skills, along with other practical ones, into the world of sustainability through North Country Sustainability Center. We’re located in Northern Worcester County where many of the skills are easy to find, and there’s still room to grow the food. We could really use help and support in this effort. Please visit http://www.northcountrysustain.org and see what we’re doing. Thanks for all your work.

  • Leah

    Well-written and worth consideration. My high school had a Culinary
    Arts program similar to the one Ms. Lynch describes. In my experience,
    program was tailored to students who likely wouldn’t go on to college
    and wasn’t well-respected among other students and staff–
    unfortunately, that’s what turned me away from taking the class, as I
    was academically strong and planned to go to college. Wouldn’t you know
    that the desire to be in the kitchen has still stuck with me, even to
    the point of quitting one of my first jobs out of college to learn the
    ropes of operating a retail bakery. To this day, I still wonder how
    things would have turned out differently if I’d taken Culinary Arts in
    high school.

    When I was in middle school in the late ’90s, Home
    Ec changed to Consumer Science, trying to focus on financial
    preparedness and reading nutrition labels. In Home Ec, I learned how to
    operate a sewing machine and sewed a tote bag I still use. In Consumer
    Science, I learned about the Ps of Marketing and how advertising works.
    In shop class, we built drums (yup, still have mine) and built boats we
    raced in a regatta at the end of the year. Have I needed to build a drum
    or boat since middle school? No, but knowing how to handle myself
    around tools (power and otherwise) has definitely helped me. In my
    marketing job, I cobbled together a custom table skirt for a trade show
    display. Test-taking doesn’t create adults suited to survive in the real
    world. Life skills do.

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