There is a missing element in the U.S. education system, a big one, AWOL since the 1980s. Its absence has been made more palpable by the obscene U.S. income gap, combined with the pandemic and the fact that the U.S. has become one of the most socially complicated countries. We are at the point where a clerical error on a routine form may put your life in danger. This means the nation is brittle, without much slack in the multi-algorithmic systems that rule our lives now. It is not difficult to slip up and go from victor to victim in a few hours.
Initially, the built-in education to counteract uncontrollable mega-modernity was Home Economics—emphasis on economics. Chauvinists like to stereotype the field as “stir and stitch,” but that was only a slam against women. It taught civilian survival and resilience. It protected health and mental stability and delivered the confidence that you had some control over human failure, at least within your own four walls.
Home Econ then became Family and Consumer Science, and now it’s called Human Ecology. It still teaches preventive and protective physical and mental health, but the content has broadened to include climate and technology defenses. The mission is still the same: to educate each person to meet human physical and mental needs, including the social skills for keeping families and communities intact.
However, since the ’70s, schools dropped Home Economics as they became driven more by employers’ demands, not human needs. Also, prevailing misogyny and the predominance of male administrators at the time valued male-role skills and trivialized women’s. Then, space was needed for new computer labs, and finally, new testing standards could not be applied to knowing how to feed a family. In other words, the most basic human-centric program in American schools was dismissed on many levels.
Now, the second generation of students since the ’80s are confronting their lives without being required to learn this information in schools. And it can no longer be assumed that Mom knows and will clue you in. Mom doesn’t know either, and she doesn’t have time anyway. And forget about Dad—since it was only required for women, men missed it altogether.
The bald truth is that all human beings must be specifically taught how to navigate a country as complex and sophisticated as this one. The knowledge does not come through osmosis and does not come with age, unless you count chancy trial and error. It is one of the reasons for the outsize influence of social media as people seek answers to behavioral, social, and human life decisions they should have learned in school.
Schools have an educational obligation to teach people about meeting human needs and coexisting. In their tunnel-vision, they have abandoned that duty, believing that all is well if a person has a job. That makes employers happy, but, clearly, it takes more than that to achieve national wellbeing and unity—as we are finding out. One reason for the recent Great Resignation, as more than 47 million people voluntarily quit jobs in 2021, is that people innately know that their life needs come first, not the employers’ needs, and they are taking action as they face shortened futures from viruses and climate change. Economist Albert O. Hirshman’s “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty” comes to mind often. Schools respond with money-management classes, which is better late than never, but it takes a lot more.
The underlying truth that human and natural life must come first, together, has been validated through centuries of history, here and on every other continent. The Greeks distinguished between two ideas of happiness, hedonia and eudaimonia, neatly summarizing the eternal human angst of whether to go for temporary pleasures or conserve resources for lifelong flourishing. It is time for schools to stop prioritizing the economic short term and start serving lifetimes, or they will be relegated to treatment and salvage operations instead of acting as institutions for prevention and preparation. Many schools now run complete food and welfare “missions” for their students living in poverty.
Human Ecology education is preventive education—it prevents poverty, broken relationships, traumatized children, homelessness, and poor physical and mental health. It prepares a person for unavoidable life phases, from birth to death. It ensures that each student can adapt to change, possess the cognitive skills to problem-solve for those other 16 non-working hours, pass the Marshmallow Test, acquire cultural intelligence, and sew on a button instead of tossing the shirt and buying another. Human Ecology education serves generations within a family. It builds national human capital.
Suppose all schools and colleges instituted Human Ecology programs, K-14, and required them for every kid to graduate! Think of the savings in national damage and social costs resulting from those suffering from insecurity, lack of health and wellbeing. Imagine lower drug use and crime, more competence and care, and a greater sense of control, achievement and dignity replacing fear of failure.
Or, think even bigger. What if the U.S. built the principles of Human Ecology—the requirements for human flourishing—right into its systems? It’s not impossible: In 2019, the European Union issued 45 conclusions for adoption by member states, all based upon the human development premise of Human Ecology.
Human Ecology teaches the skills needed to keep pace with and counteract contemporary forces and conditions. No one just adapts without knowing how or unites around best practices if they never learned them. Without specific, how-to education on many fronts to prevent personal failure, perpetual rescue after the fact becomes the only option, one government or school program after another. That taxes society, literally. It is unnecessarily redundant and allows the problem to grow with each generation.
Since we can’t count on Human Ecology education coming from families, schools are on the hook. Without it, a promising future by any definition is wishful thinking.