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A Radical Defense of Home Economics

Here’s a terrific essay in the New Inquiry by Christine Baumgarthuber on the history and possible future of home economics classes. A key excerpt:

In their ideal form, home-economics courses encourage a radical re-skilling, fostering familiarity with food in its natural state (as opposed to the likely more familiar state of being wrapped in plastic or Mylar) and a respect for the kitchen wisdom that determines our health and contentment. The return of these courses to American schools should be sparked then not by that old spirit of “making do” but by a desire to mount resistance to those forces that would reduce the whole repertoire of recognizably human activities to so many one-click purchases or so much frictionless “sharing.” [Juliet] Corson devoted her life to dispelling the ignorance that often accompanies privation. Cooks today must defend against a more insidious enemy: a modern food industry that profits from that ignorance and blights with degenerative diseases — Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol — spawned by its goods. The sooner we warn children against this goblin market and teach them culinary self-sufficiency, the sooner we can wrest our health and happiness back from the food conglomerates, the factory farms, the lobbyists and the adulterators.

I think this essay illustrates something I’ve been noticing lately: the points at which concerns of the radical left converge with those of traditionalist conservatism. It’s true that a tradcon wouldn’t use phrases like “radical re-skilling” — nor, I submit, would someone concerned with using English elegantly; though here I digress — but the central commitment being articulated here to “culinary self-sufficiency” ought to warm the traditionalist’s cold, cold heart.

Similarly, when on Twitter the other day I linked to Ron Unz’s essay on Harvard as hedge fund one of my followers wrote back in some puzzlement: Isn’t that the kind of thing one might expect to see in, say, Mother Jones rather than in a conservative magazine? I replied, Whether that is surprising (or dimcomfiting) or not depends on how you conceive of conservatism. There are, it turns out, people deeply committed to conservatism who don’t believe they are thereby required to disagree with everything that could conceivably be published in Mother Jones.

Traditionalists and radicals alike have deep reservations about the bureaucratization, rationalization, and consumerism of American life, and lament the damage such forces are doing to local communities and to families. But while these groups formulate very similar critiques of the current order, they arrive at those crituques by very different intellectual paths. I wonder if that will always prevent them from making common cause with one another

UPDATE: My friend Suzanne Fischer has just noted on Twitter that I’m not the only one thinking along these lines: see this piece from the Atlantic’s website, by Emily Matchar. Representative passage:

The idea that intensive DIY homemaking is a valid substitute for paid work has also become increasingly accepted among many progressive women, the kind of women who have always expected gender equality at work and at home. I’ve talked to dozens of women who cheerfully say that their new domestic endeavors are much, much more fulfilling than their old jobs – in fact, quitting these old jobs was a feminist act! Instead of slaving away for The Man, they’re raising organic veggies. Instead of driving a gas-guzzling car to work, they’re riding bikes around the neighborhood with their kids. Instead of throwing cash into the gaping maw of Wal-Mart, they’re sewing their own blankets, baking their own bread, buying local.

What would once have been an incredibly conservative view – “a woman’s place is in the home” – now has a new, progressive logic. 

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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