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Home economics education in British Columbia 1903-1939 : proving its worth DeZwart, Mary Leah


This study focused on public school home economics education in British Columbia between 1903-1939. The aim was to examine how home economics educators of this time period worked to have home economics recognized as a compulsory school subject, and how their accomplishments were influenced by contemporary events and progressive education ideals. Documents were analyzed, compared and synthesized to form as accurate a picture as possible of the conditions under which the place of home economics in the school system was justified. Sources used included annual reports of the public schools, curriculum documents, newspapers and special interest publications, and relevant writings of the principal actors. The time period 1903-1939 was divided into three sections. In the formative years (1903-1924) home economics was directed towards girls' vocational training as homemakers. Early home economics educators viewed the subject as a means of teaching about the middle-class "home ideal" through the inculcation of good habits of cleanliness, exactness and order. A problem arose because home economics, like other forms of practical education, was marginal, not central to the school system. It was not viewed seriously or made a priority except as it related to girls' education. Advocates of home economics decided that home economics would gain legitimacy if it were more regulated and accepted for matriculation credit, and worked toward this end. The 1924-25 survey of the British Columbia school system by J.H. Putman and G. M. Weir and the resulting Putman-Weir Report (1925) cemented many progressive education ideas. The Report placed home economics in an ambivalent position by promoting it as a means of teaching both cultural and vocational values and criticizing it for lack of organization and poorly trained teachers. The Putman-Weir Report reaffirmed contemporary ideas about the role of home economics in socializing female students and building a healthy nation. Political and economic factors kept the implementation of the Report on hold for eight years, with the exception of the appointment of Jessie McLenaghen as first Provincial, Director of Home Economics for the Department of Education in 1926. Jessie McLenaghen set about proving the worth of home economics and ensuring its place in the public school system. The student population of home economics changed from elementary to secondary school students accompanied by increased formalization such as examinations and use of a textbook. Home economics at the secondary school level required teachers with university degrees but there was no Chair of Home Economics at the University of British Columbia to train them. Consequently there were many unqualified teachers. A prescriptive curriculum and teacher inspections were seen as necessary to counteract this. The end result was an overemphasis on standards and technical instruction under the guise of promoting worthy home membership. After the curriculum revision of 1936, home economics was in the ambivalent state of a practical subject in an academic setting, forced to conform to 40-50 minute periods and examinations. It was female-dominated in an education system oriented to male values and a field which contained technical knowledge as well as moral and ethical standards. Jessie McLenaghen's actions of unifying and reconciling the home economics curriculum had ensured its survival, but in a truncated form. Home economics did not last as a compulsory subject past the Chant Commission of 1960 when many New Education ideas were discarded. Conformity was emphasized over the recognition of individual differences in homes and families, and the practical importance of home economics was submerged. In summary, a challenge is presented for home economics to re-examine and reclaim its practical roots. Suggestions for further study are made.

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