The journey of home science
The home science lab was the most un-school like place in school and all of us in the course just wanted to hang out in it all day. In the lab, never at home, I agonized over the making of gaajar ka halwa, set a table for guests with the right cutlery. I learned how to identify fabrics, studied human growth and development over long discussions on adolescence which we were authorities on. I hemmed handkerchiefs that I never used and knitted a scarf that was never worn. I loved it all.
I had chosen the subject, little knowing what was in store – in my school years, we had no aptitude tests and vocational guidance, and the indifference of parents to my educational choices made me pick the one subject I knew absolutely nothing about. Having picked it, however, I was determined to make the best of it.
Both habits have stood me in good stead for the rest of my life. Every year, I’ve done something new, something I knew nothing about and then worked to make it a part of my skill set. In a way these actions are part of human development and mental health, both of which are included in the home science syllabus.
I thought I’d had the last of home science after my final year of school, till the Teacher Plus special edition came up as an opportunity and the memory of the one and only time I’d ever actually succeeded in making halwa and being rewarded for it, stirred a loyalty to the subject that lay dormant in my subconscious.
If you look up Wikipedia, you will find that managing a home, with its base in science, was first termed Euthenics by an American woman, Ellen Swallow Richards in her book The Cost of Shelter (1905), with the meaning “the science of better living”*. Vassar College designed a multidisciplinary course around it but it remained mired in controversy, contested by feminists and scientists and viewed as an imposter science.
A similar fate appears to be surrounding home science. Known as the optional 5th subject, home science was and continues to be a choice for students who want one relatively low stakes subject as well as for those students for whom its relatable practical knowledge is a relief. In the year 2020-21 while Covid-19 shut schools and colleges, the home science syllabus was changed to human ecology, a move contested by many teachers. CBSE dropped the cooking and stitching that made it the most desirable and undesirable subject. The school level human ecology, which confusingly for some, continues to be addressed as home science in higher education, now has a vocational slant that was described by one teacher as a “preview of career oriented vocational programmes”.
If you read the NEP 2020 you would think home science was a thought leader in 21st century skills. It scores on every one of the indicators of a good subject. Students relate easily to their lives (food, clothing, shelter, family, sport), find it is multidisciplinary (human development, health, craft, art, leisure), encourages creativity (fashion, cooking, interior design, flower arrangement), critical thinking (health and nutrition, making menus), problem solving (home economics) and communication (including media and entertainment).
And yet, home science was relegated to the subject that students with learning difficulty were asked to do in the 10th Board examination instead of mathematics. It was an optional subject for science, arts and commerce students in the 11th and 12th grade. The low numbers opting for this subject, which competes in most schools with the other 5th option – sports, was because it was largely perceived as a “course for girls where you learn how to be a good wife”. This perspective has been gradually overcome in some schools by selling it to boys as a preferred option after grade 10 for a diploma in hotel management.
The gender bias is a result of the discipline’s origins in Vadodara and the sustained fact that it is offered as a higher education programme only in all-girls colleges. Lady Irwin College in Delhi and SNDT University in Mumbai, for example, offer it with final year specializations in two papers. Many school teachers have graduated from these colleges and returned to teach in school, some as pre-primary and primary teachers and others as teachers and textbook writers of home science.
Over the years, teachers of the subject have worked hard to make it accessible for boys by including examples of the role of men in making decisions around leisure and health and helping with household chores in their teaching. The socially accepted gender division when it comes to the ownership and control of money and therefore power, has similarly been challenged by ensuring the inclusion of home economics in predominantly female cohorts.
Some teachers have raised the bar by including field visits to hotels, craft bazaars and local businesses. Most teachers have examples of students setting up successful small businesses such as boutiques and bakeries. With the job generation reducing, this entrepreneurial ability also speaks directly to NEP 2020’s goals. What stopped it from becoming a mandatory subject for all children across grades is a mystery that lies waiting to be solved in the hallowed chambers of NCERT.
Many schools have circumvented the late introduction of the home science syllabus by adapting a life skills programme for all students. By making it a part of a multi-year programme, they are able to challenge gender stereotypes and ensure that all students have the skills needed to be independent and equal. In times like the ones we are in, this sort of curriculum could mean their students would have studied and known how to manage a crisis. They could know the science underlying the need for cleanliness, hygiene, following protocols, maintaining social distance, exercising and being mentally prepared for pandemics of any kind.
We’ve tried to include the rich range of subject matter that forms home science. The articles in this issue illustrate, embellish and interrogate the field. We offer you insights into history, theory and practice, student and teacher voices and the voices of experts and writers in the fields that are included as the content of the subject. We also bring you perspectives on gender and textbook writing that question the relevance of what was a practicum oriented subject.
We hope this helps you decide whether human ecology and family life sciences is an outdated idea that needs to be put to rest, whether it’s mutation is welcome or actually makes it less attractive, and finally if it needs to be replaced by a more challenging life skills curriculum for all students. Let us know what you think. We are eager to hear from you.
The author is Co-founder and Executive Director of Adhyayan. She is currently catalyzing a committed learning community of educators across India to transform the learning of students. For more than three decades as an educator, researcher, funder, school and system leader and now edupreneur, she has worked towards ensuring ‘a good school for every child’. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.