Wednesday, September 26, 2007

An academic concentration in homemaking. . . a B.A. or BS?

Cross-posted at BlogHer.

Over at the USA Today blogs, professor of women's studies and religion Mary Zeiss Stange reminds us that last spring, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas announced it was offering a new concentration to accompany its Bachelor of Arts degree in humanities: homemaking. The concentration is open only to women.

Stange provides us with some excellent context on the new program, both in terms of the larger academic field of consumer sciences and in Southwestern's ways of approaching women's issues (which include, apparently, firing women faculty teaching in "men's" fields like theology).

Among the points made by Stange and those she cites:

  • Finally, an academic institution is recognizing that homemaking is as challenging as other professions for which there are academic degrees.

  • At other institutions, consumer sciences departments train people in nutrition and related disciplines to work outside the home.

  • "If women's role as nurturer and housekeeper is written into the divinely ordained scheme of things, why should something so very natural need to be taught to them? Shouldn't these skills be innate?"

  • Is it logical to learn how about nutrition and textiles from faculty who typically have M.Div. degrees? As one student newspaper writer from Baylor quipped: "It isn't logical for someone with a master's of divinity to teach you how to make a bundt cake. ... I'd say the same thing if Emeril started teaching classes on systematic theology."

  • Even Jesus himself acknowledges that women have a place outside the home, and that homemaking can be all-absorbing in ways that aren't healthy.

At the blog Sexuality and Religion: What's the Connection?, minister and sexologist Debra W. Haffner comments that

Unfortunately what [a wife who pursues this concentration] won't be prepared for is EMPLOYMENT outside of the home...nor will her male partner be allowed to take classes so that he learns any of the above. The spokesperson for the seminary on the Today Show this morning said that part of the reason for the program is to reduce the number of divorces among Southern Baptists.

It is true that the Bible belt has the highest percentages of divorces; it's here in the liberal Northeast that it's the lowest. Like the teenage abstinence pledging programs created by the Southern Baptists, I'm guessing that this one isn't going to achieve its goal either. But it is going to leave a lot of women unprepared for the day that their husbands leave them, come out, or die.

Surely Godly women need to be better prepared for the 21st century.

On ParentDish, Susan Wagner kicked off an interesting discussion of homemaking, womanhood, men's responsibilities in the home, and grout bleaching with her post "Get college credit for loading the dishwasher (but only if you're a girl)." Go check out the post and the comments.

If you're curious, you can see brief descriptions of the homemaking classes by visiting the course catalog and scrolling down to "Homemaking Division."

What I find most fascinating is something to which Stange briefly alludes, specifically, that many of the skills to be taught in the homemaking concentration at Southwestern are usually taught as sciences. And that's because, taught thoroughly and critically, many of the areas covered are sciences and social sciences: hygiene, nutrition, child development, textiles. The design courses would typically fall under the auspices of art departments or divisions. So. . . why is this a concentration in the humanities?

I think I know why. In this country, degrees in the sciences typically are perceived as more challenging, prestigious, and, well, downright useful than degrees in the humanities. By placing a homemaking concentration in the humanities, the seminary marginalizes its importance. Homemaking, to them, is not a science. It's something to be learned alongside, strangely, the four courses of Greek or Latin required for Southwestern's B.A. in humanities. (It's a relief to know that a Southwestern humanities major with the homemaking concentration will be able to pick up the phone and converse with fellow alumnae in a dead language--perhaps a useful code in which to complain about their Godly husbands?)

The "home economics lite" nature of the concentration also bothers me. Compare their concentration with any other modern university's requirements--for example, compare these nutrition or textiles and clothing degrees (majors or minors) with Southwestern's course descriptions for their "nutrition," "meal preparation," and "clothing construction" courses--and you'll see the Southwestern program is a farce.

(If you're interested in the history of home economics in higher education, you'll find Maresi Nerad's book The Academic Kitchen to be an excellent read. The book chronicles UC Berkeley's attempts to corral women students and faculty interested in science within home economics. Throughout the book, Nerad suggests that there were actually two forces behind the development of a department of home economics at Berkeley: men who wanted to keep women in their place, and women who wanted to pursue a science degree at a time when that exact degree might be their ticket to better employment, as well as to women's greater presence in the university.)

Even though many of its stated institutional values conflict with my own, I'm not going to use this space to criticize Southwestern's core beliefs about women's roles in the modern world. After all, my own alma mater, also a small college, has its own (very different) history of promoting activism and service to larger causes, a tradition of which I'm quite proud. But those of us on the more progressive side of the political spectrum do have the right--and responsibility--to bring to light any institution of education's attempts to create a program that, as Haffner points out, may divide up gender responsibilities so rigidly that women graduates of the program may be unprepared for life outside of the household, or even for really running the household should something, God forbid, happen to their male partners. Why doesn't the homemaking sequence cover, for example, investment theory or family finances?

And what does the course description for "Value of a Child"--"a study of the spiritual, physical, emotional and cognitive development of a child"--really mean? Are we to believe all of these topics are really to be covered in three credit hours? Is the program aiming to prepare these women more for modern motherhood--with today's apparently rising rates of autism, infertility, divorce, mental illness, and countless other serious medical and political issues--or for being wives and servants? (And all this at a cost of more than $63,000 over four years.)

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for a good, interdisciplinary humanities degree--I have four of them, as I love me some critical analysis, diversity of perspectives, and great literature--but this degree strikes me as neither belonging in the humanities nor, for the women who take the homemaking concentration, very humane.


Crimson Rambler said...

wait just a doggone minute...why is it a foregone conclusion that somebody with an MDiv can't possibly know how to make a Bundt cake? OR -- and this is the one that stings, really -- that somebody who can make a terrific Bundt cake can't/won't/doesn't/wouldn't want to earn an MDiv? (I'm going to go home and move my diploma over next to the Bundt pan on the kitchen wall)
But seriously - is this what passes for logic in your neighborhood???

Leslie M-B said...

Thanks for your comment, Crimson Rambler, but that's not quite what I meant. What I was trying to ask is that (a) Does an M.Div. qualify someone to *teach* home ec as an expert on the *level* required in an institution of higher ed? (b) Does the home ec program at Southwestern meet academic standards at all? (c) Why the heck is it in the humanities?

I'm not meaning to tarnish the reps of bundt-cake-making M.Divs or bundt-cake-makers who want to be M.Divs. Rather, I'm wondering why the two are together in an academic setting.

Crimson Rambler said...

fair enough! I think the problem lies in the rather confusing light that plays upon the idea of academic standards in home this Martha Stewart skills, or is this nutritional science??? why is it in the humanities...well according to Petrarch, upon whom be peace, these studies are so called of the old ones because their chief end consists in the increase of mutual loving-kindness of minds; does this help at all??? the local University-Shaped Object, home ec is taught as a branch of engineering. Go figger...