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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/August 1898/Education for Domestic Life



THE need of some kind of education as a basis for every activity is constantly emphasized to-day; but this emphasis is rarely applied to the need of training for domestic life, for which it is usually supposed that any kind of preparation will do. One million six hundred thousand women in the United States are engaged in domestic service, and eleven million one hundred thousand more are married and presumably have some kind of domestic duties. Several writers have called attention recently to the fact that a woman does not necessarily have an instinct for home-making; that while her instinct for the care of children may be strong, yet she may lack the skill to make a fire properly or to mix the ingredients of wholesome food. Or she may be skilled in handling modern kitchen appliances, but may lack the knowledge of the effect of exercise, regular hours, wholesome food and clothing adapted to climate, upon the future health and mental development of her children. It seems to be only just now dawning on women that domesticity—that is, the care of the household and children—is in itself a profession for which the best training and the fullest development attainable are not too much.

The education of women has tended to develop along the same lines as that of men. The classical education for the gentleman has changed to the general education for the average man, and to the specialized education for the industries as well as for the professions. A similar change is taking place in the education of women, but has reached only the second stage. Those who first insisted upon the value of a higher education for women thought it sufficient that they should have the same opportunities as men. This experiment has been tried now for a generation, and it is found that all women do not need the same kind of training as men any more than all men need a purely classical or a purely scientific education. In other words, individualism is breaking up all the accepted lines of education for women as it has for men. As a result, differentiation of courses within the higher training is demanded to meet the practical needs of a life in which no two individuals can possibly do precisely the same things. The fact that one third of all women in the United States are married sets them aside as needing a peculiar training for their profession.

In domestic life women need at least two things: first, the greatest general culture attainable to enrich the home life and to retain the sympathies of children, as well as to store up for themselves resources in hours of difficulty, loneliness, or sorrow; second, they need an education adapted to the everyday business, especially to the emergencies, of domestic life. No education is complete nor, indeed, of great permanent value that does not teach how to live contentedly and to economize nerve energy. To be contented, one must feel sure that one is in the right place, and must have spiritual and intellectual resources to tide over life's emergencies whose end one can not see. To be economical of nerve energy, one must learn a finely balanced self-control and a large-minded discrimination between the values of competing duties and attractions.

It is a significant fact that of one hundred and eighty-four living children of two hundred and twenty-eight almshouse women, less than one third are self-supporting. One fourth are lost—that is, they have been separated from the mother in one way or another, and she no longer knows where they are. The women themselves give all sorts of plausible reasons why their children do not support them; but the fact is, as the stories show, that nineteen women were cast off by their relatives or children because of their drunken. vicious, or filthy habits, and nearly as many because their children were ashamed of them; five have quarreled with daughters or grandchildren. These facts show that the home life was defective in those characteristics which tend to bind the family together. In the Elmira Reformatory seven per cent had had a good home, thirty-nine per cent fair, fifty-four per cent poor, showing the preponderance of bad home conditions. In conducting a student employment bureau it was found that there was an undue supply of those who wished to do bookkeeping, typewriting, and clerical work, while there was great difficulty in securing any one who could do mending, plain sewing, or ordinary housework satisfactorily. There was a large amount of this domestic work to be performed in the community, but the young women who were obliged to earn a part of their living in college were quite incapable of doing what was needed. Charity and settlement workers continually testify that the women of the laboring classes lack proper training and skill in making home comfortable and wholesome. Without additional illustration, it appears that women are being prepared for everything else than domestic life—the life which, as statistics show, nearly one half of them are living.

What, then, does the average woman need? In the first place, a thorough manual training. She needs to know how to cook a wholesome meal properly, to put it on the table appetizingly, and to do this with the minimum expenditure of energy. It is one of the most hopeful signs in elementary education that kitchen gardening and household training are being introduced into those schools which the children of the general population attend. The need of this practical domestic training for girls has probably been sufficiently emphasized, but in the general readjustment of occupations and duties going on between men and women, it is more and more apparent that boys as well as girls need a certain amount of elementary domestic training. It is a mere fetich, for instance, that women should do all the mending or even have all the care of children. There are many families in which family happiness, comfort, and prosperity would be greatly promoted if the husband and father could, at least in an emergency, take a competent share in the routine work of the household. There are many generous and kindly husbands who would be glad to help, but who are incapable through lack of elementary training. Since the bearing and rearing of children is the most important function of women, the mother must be relieved, at least at times, from many of her ordinary household cares. If there be not money enough to hire extra service, it is inevitable that the father should take, at least temporarily, some of these duties, if the family is to be maintained in comfort.

Again, the average mother needs a thorough grounding in elementary physiology and hygiene. Five per cent of all children born in the United States die under five years of age. When this occurs, the waste of human energy both before and after birth is something appalling. Prof. A. Gr. Warner estimates that it costs about a hundred dollars in loss of labor on the part of the mother, in doctor's bills, medicine, and nursing, to bring a child into the world, in a laboring-class family; while in families where a higher standard of living prevails this may amount to hundreds or even thousands of dollars. From a purely economic standpoint it is of the utmost importance to society that a child which costs so much, not merely in money but in vital energy, should be reared to maturity. The appalling mortality of children that are born fairly normal and vital is chiefly to be accounted for by the ignorance of mothers. The average woman may not need to know how many bones there are in the body, but she does need to know the connection between rich gravies, indigestion, and bad colds. She may not need to know how to bandage a broken arm, but she does need to realize the effect of sudden changes of temperature upon the delicate infant organism. The value of applied physiology in preserving infant life and diminishing hereditary and individual disease can not be overestimated; and no woman is fit to be married who has not had a training which gives her the elements of this essential knowledge.

Finally, women need a training in ethical standards. One of the curious anomalies disclosed by the entrance of women into industrial life is that while they have higher standards of purity than men, they frequently have much lower standards of honor and honesty. They do not hesitate to outwit, deceive, and "manage" difficult husbands; they train children in dishonesty by continually violating the most common standards of sincerity and directness. Children learn far more by example than by precept: the mother who continually promises, but always finds excuses for not performing; who threatens, but does not punish; who suppresses the child's frank comments on evil actions in others, while herself gossiping about her neighbors; who pretends to dress and to live above the scale of the family income, gives an education in dishonesty and sham which can not be overcome by any amount of so-called moral training.

If to all these practical and utilitarian attainments the mother can add the graces of culture in music or art or literature, she may give the child a background for education and a resource in life beyond the power of statistics to estimate. The elevation, enrichment, and sweetening of the family life by these contributions from the mother's own storehouse of culture are a safeguard against temp temptation from without not to be matched by legislation or training, nor even by church influence. To make the household sweet, wholesome, dignified, a place of growth, is certainly a profession requiring not merely the best training, but a specific training adapted to these ends.