One View of Domestic Science

"The idea that every woman needs practical instruction in housekeeping as a part of her education is as absurd as would be the claim that every man needs to be taught in school to plant corn or milk a cow"  

By way of introduction, let me say that I am a believer in domestic science. I entertain much higher ideals for it than do its professional advocates and teachers. If I were a teacher of domestic science, I suspect that there would be almost no limit to the dreams I should indulge in as to the uplifting possibilities of my chosen work. Yet, for the most part, its most earnest votaries neither claim for it these possibilities, nor do they seem even to suspect their existence.

What is the reason for this lack of vision? Those who do comprehend the promise contained in this new branch of the pedagogical tree seem, like myself, to have evolved their ideas amid the musty surroundings of philology or the classics, and seldom in white-tiled, nickel-plated kitchens.

Let me take as a starting-point the ideals of the profession. So far as I can discover, the utmost which the representatives of domestic science claim for it is that it will fit women better to care for and direct their homes. Almost any domestic scientist can be depended upon to remark: 'The care of the home and the proper rearing of children are the noblest and most satisfying vocations in which a woman can engage,' and so forth. (See any Chautauqua lecture-course.)

Anything that will really better the management of the home and the education of children may well claim to be an uplifting force in society, but I have yet to learn how domestic science, as understood by its average exponent, is justifying that claim or attempting to justify it. The very fact that almost every professional writer on the subject begins his article with some such sentiment as, 'Woman's kingdom is the Home, and no woman can afford to be without a practical knowledge of the work of the Home,' shows how very narrow a conception these supporters of domestic science have of what it is which actually does elevate the home or benefit its inmates. By their own showing, 'housekeeping' means baking good bread and knowing how to broil a beefsteak—notwithstanding the fact that this knowledge is, and long has been, possessed in a high degree by sundry women of colored skin or of European peasant extraction, to whom not one of the aforesaid writers would dream of committing the making of his home, or the care of his children beyond the teething stage. Yet if there accrues to women as much mental and spiritual development from learning to do well all things connected with domestic life as from the study of books, why, I ask, does not the fanatic on industrial education entrust the entire rearing of his children to his Irish nurse-girl? Why does he not marry his cook?

Scattering instances, it is true, are on record of a man's marrying his cook, but not the type of man who celebrates in magazines and on platforms the charm and potent 'influence' of the 'homekeeping' goddess. No; this latter man is precisely the one who, if confronted in his choice of a companion for life, and a mother for his children, with the alternative of Greek without domestic accomplishments, or good bread without academic equipment, would unhesitatingly take the Greek and trust to Heaven for his daily bread—and he would be right. He instinctively knows that from the woman who reads Greek there is hope, if occasion arise, of the evolution of the bread-making faculty; he also knows—although he will not usually tell the truth about it—from the bread-making intelligence alone there is no hope of the development of any of the things for which a knowledge of Greek stands.

My contention is twofold: first, that there is absolutely nothing in domestic duties themselves, or in any form of manual labor, which develops the mind or elevates or broadens the character; second, that the idea that every woman needs practical instruction in housekeeping as a part of her education is as absurd as would be the claim that every man needs to be taught in school to plant corn or milk a cow. Corn-planting, milking, and bread- and bed-making are all very good things to know; not one of them is essential to the education and usefulness of all men and women.

I wish to make clear, in the beginning, the very wide distinction between the importance of manual labor for men and women, and the educational value of it. To say that in itself it possesses no educative power is by no means to say that the doing of it—the doing of it well—is not a necessary and worthy contribution to the sum of human happiness and decency. But the instances commonly cited to prove its value as an educational factor are in reality cases of putting education into it, not of putting it into education. The men and women who have sung the praises of labor, who have seen that man might truly worship God by the work of his hands, have been the scholars, the thinkers, who brought from the domain of the student an idealism which they infused into their bodily toil. No one ever hears such sentiments from the orator of a labor union. Those who toil for their daily bread with their hands hate manual labor; they see only the hardness and monotony and degradation of it; and their life is one continual protest against its deadening influence.

And of all the manual laborers who hate their work, none is so conspicuous for her dislike of it as the domestic servant. The reasons therefore have been catalogued many times over by the sociological dabbler for the modern magazine. 'Boiled down,' they amount to this: that neither the maid nor her employer ordinarily has sufficient intelligence to regard the performance of household tasks as a business other than socially degrading. If doing domestic work well elevates the mind and enlarges the spiritual horizon, both mistress and maid ought long ago to have risen above this cramped and distorted view, for very often both of them cook and sweep and wash and iron very well indeed. But, as a matter of fact, whatever degree of appreciation of the dignity of household labor either possesses is almost invariably proportioned to the degree to which she has been taught to think outside of the kitchen.

Again, if the learning to make beautiful things develops the intellect, washing and ironing ought to rank very high in the educational scale (and no thanks to domestic science, either); for really there is nothing much more attractive to the eye, and nothing that requires a more delicate skill and a daintier touch, than an array of beautifully ironed garments. Yet what is our experience with the intellect of our laundress, whether Negro 'wash-lady' or French blanchisseuse de fin? On the other hand, I can iron my most elaborate shirtwaists quite as well as my old colored 'aunty' does, nor did I begin to learn to do the work until I was grown and college-bred. This personal reference is not prompted by vanity over an exceptional domestic accomplishment which may save me from starvation should school-teaching and the Carnegie pension fail, but is merely by way of indicating that in it I am not exceptional at all. Everywhere are proofs that the woman with educated brain can use her hands skillfully and profitably if occasion arise; corresponding proofs are not forthcoming that the woman with skillful hands can do the like with her brain.

Of course, as the domestic scientist would doubtless remind me, it is not necessary to imagine only the two extremes, the woman who knows nothing but books and the woman who knows nothing but kitchen; but is it not true that the women who combine book-knowledge with housekeeping knowledge existed in very considerable numbers long before Domestic Science was dreamed of, or written with capital letters as a collegiate Department? And can any one deny that this combination has almost invariably resulted from academic training as the definite part of education, with domestic training as an accidental product of home environment or the like; and not from domestic training as the definite substance of education and academic as the accidental product?

Practically all the results to which the domestic scientists 'point with pride' have been gained through methods formulated, and material already prepared, by us who are teaching what men variously term the humanities, culture studies, and 'book-l'arnin'.' It does, therefore, sometimes seem to me rather ungracious of domestic scientists to try to prove by statistics that it is they who are raising the level of our work.

I think my especial grudge against the domestic scientists (not against Domestic Science, which is a different matter) is that they are not improving either education or the female sex, for neither can ever be improved by such ideals as domestic scientists mainly profess. The real result of their educational theories, if they can ever get them put into general practice, will be to bring both schools and women to even a lower level of the mediocrity which grows out of the effort to do too many things, and of elevating things above thoughts.

As to the schools: I am aware that there exist reports of experiments made, notably in Canada, according to which students industrially trained are 'proved' to have outstripped in examinations upon academic branches those trained in the latter alone. The 'proof' seems to me less convincing than it does to the enthusiasts who wish to believe. I myself know a certain manual training school whose graduates, I dare say, can not only make better mission furniture and daintier hand-made nightgowns and more toothsome muffins than the majority of high-school graduates in the same city, but would possibly average higher on a college entrance examination. But the reason is so obvious that I wonder how the industrialists can so comfortably overlook it. The school is richly endowed, and possesses every advantage that can be afforded by fine teachers—all specialists—and splendid equipment. Add to this the smaller classes and consequent additional individual attention possible for the pupils, above all, the fact that the teachers and directors are exerting every effort to prove the validity of a pet educational theory, and then consider how far the school with these tremendous advantages is justified in tracing its alleged superiority in languages and chemistry to the influence of muffins and hand-made undergarments.

For certain sections of country where civilization is so backward that cleanliness and comfort in the home are not regarded, for children of city slums where the same and worse conditions exist, there is no doubt that instruction is needed in all that will tend to secure cleanliness, comfort, and beauty as well, and probably the school is the best practical vehicle for conveying such instruction. But if it must be introduced at the cost of reducing the amount of instruction in things purely intellectual, then the young people in such a school are being deprived of something just as surely their due, just as essential to their future as useful men and women, as any knowledge of cooking or sewing, furniture-making or plumbing, can possibly be. And further, to claim that because of the manifest need of a minority of school-children and young people to be taught some of these things, industrial training should be put into all the schools, and included within the hours formerly given to mental training, with the consequent cutting-down of the hours of book-study, is to commit nothing less than an outrage on the great majority of children, who come from homes where the essentials of all such domestic knowledge come to them from their environment and without thought of its being a study.

I do not mean to say that it is undesirable that these things should be made a study. On the contrary, I should make them a study to a much greater extent than now, but in the right time and place, and for the right people. It is most desirable that sewing, cooking, every department of domestic employment, indeed, should be taught in the best way, which means the scientific way and the artistic way; and that way is, no doubt, to be most fully secured through classes taught by trained specialists. But the time and the place for these classes are not the school-room and the hour in which your daughter ought to be studying Latin and mathematics. And you ought to feel that you and she are being defrauded if the time in which she has a right to be given the intellectual training which is a necessity to every normal human being is encroached upon by manual training which does not educate, and is only useful to some human beings.

The course to pursue in regard to industrial training for young people under collegiate grade seems to me to be this: in the majority of communities and for the majority of students, it should not be allowed in the schools at all as a course of study, but it may very properly be provided in connection with the schools as something to be undertaken outside of regular school hours by those who need it. For exceptional communities, as for instance the more remote and backward regions in some Southern States, or the parts of our cities where the population is chiefly ignorant, uncleanly, and poorly housed, there should be special schools to meet the special needs, and there it would be most desirable to teach all the things which the homes of such children do not and cannot give, and which the children ought to possess. But even in such schools I believe that the amount and quality of purely intellectual training should not be lessened because of the necessity for the introduction of the industrial. It must no doubt be extended over a longer time, but eventually the poor white or the little dago of the fruit-stand should be as well fitted to go to college if he cares to (and the abomination of the present industrial 'education' is that it does not pretend to try to make him care to) as the child of the professional man.

In the collegiate period in the lives of young men and young women I believe that there is the least excuse of all for the introduction of what we usually understand by industrial education. Of course, I do not mean by this that certain kinds of highly scientific, and therefore highly educative work, which is now done, chiefly by men, in technical schools of collegiate rank, should be excluded. I do not wish to enter, in fact, upon the very wide field embracing both masculine and feminine education, but to confine myself to my text, which is Domestic Science—a noun whose gender is universally regarded as feminine.

In my opinion, domestic economy has no place in the undergraduate courses of any college admitting women. If it were possible, I should forbid the existence of the school of domestic science even as a substitute for the undergraduate college course. It is not possible, I suppose, but it does seem to me the duty of really educated educators, at least, to discourage the idea that the high-school graduate is going to get something, in the two or three years' course of even the best schools of domestic economy, which will prepare her as well for the 'practical duties of life' as will the orthodox college course, and 'fit her better for motherhood.' Ah, motherhood, how many crimes are committed in thy name!—and not the sort traditionally and sentimentally so-called.

The school of domestic science should be, it seems to me, on a level with the present professional and graduate schools, and require, no less than these schools, a collegiate degree, or its equivalent, for admission. And the object of its course of study should be, not to make women better keepers of their individual homes, but to set their minds working toward the formulation of a plan to revolutionize the whole housekeeping system, to the end that the individual home shall cease to be an insatiate monster to which daily sacrifice is made of the talents and ambitions of thousands of women. It is not generally regarded as a monster, I admit. It is a dragon whose ugliness has always been draped in garlands of sentiment. The victims go gayly to the altar in wreaths of orange-blossoms and to strains of sweet music. But, public sentimentalism to the contrary notwithstanding, it is a devouring monster.

That every normal woman has the maternal instinct, and a desire for a home and family, is probably true; that every woman has the cooking and cleaning and nursing instinct is neither true nor desirable. There is no more reason that marriage and the parental function should involve the utter renunciation of a professional, artistic, or business career for the many women naturally adapted to such careers, than that it should do so for their husbands. But as we keep house at present, it does and must mean such renunciation in most cases, because it is not humanly possible for a woman to do exactly double the work of a man.

It seems strange that society cannot realize how much is being lost to its intellectual and artistic life, to its best motherhood, by the forcible direction of all the varied forms of feminine ability into the one channel of domestic occupations. At a recent medical convention, the brilliant proposition was made—so the papers reported—that nursing should be substituted for algebra 'and other useless studies' in high-school courses for girls, because it was far more necessary that the prospective mother should be able to minister to her infant when it is attacked by croup than to solve equations with three unknown quantities. The originator of this 'practical' idea seemed quite to overlook the fact that it would be better for a good many people to have gone to heaven in infancy than to be reared, as they are, by mothers whose ability to care for their bodily needs is wholly overbalanced by their inability to care for their mental, and therefore spiritual, ones.

Correspondingly, it seems to me strange that what is served upon the family board should be regarded as of so much more importance than the conversation which goes on around it. Yet that conversation is not going to be mentally nourishing unless the mother, as well as the father, is able to contribute to it something from books, from the great world outside, not from the kitchen or from the laundry. Even if the mother be college-bred, her intellectual activities must gradually suffer contraction if bounded by her own home walls, although she may cook according to chemical formulæ in a lovely modern kitchen, and set her table with all the daintiness that a domestic-art course can devise. For, as I have said before, we have no evidence from the hundreds of good housekeepers whom we all know that the perfection of their domestic appointments makes them thoughtful, broad-minded, or an inspiration to their children. I have in mind at this moment a married friend whose house from attic to furnace-room is habitually spotless, whose cakes and salads and biscuits are a pure delight—but her conversation is distinctly not up to the level of her biscuit. And she is no solitary example. It seems to me that the real opportunity of Domestic Science is to be found in its power to lessen a twofold evil: to reduce the number of what Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman so aptly terms 'the kitchen-minded,' and to save from sacrifice the many high-minded, who are now bound to a miserable choice between the 'career' which talent and education should make perfectly legitimate for them, and the married life which, because they are human, is also their legitimate heritage.

The large number of women whose gift is really household management should dignify it by making it a profession whereby they may take the housekeeping burden off the shoulders of us whose gift is to educate their children, minister to them in sickness, try their lawsuits, and so forth. How can they do it? That problem is for the domestic scientists themselves to solve, if they would justify their existence. I have my theories about it, to be sure, but my business is teaching Latin, not household economy, and if I did suggest a scheme for them, I fear that they would never give any of the credit for it to the despised 'mental discipline' of the classics, but would insist that I owe all my ideas to my practice of helping my mother with her housework in my summer vacations.