• Sandra Ericson

History of Human Ecology

Updated: Oct 21, 2020


In the United States, home economics courses in higher education greatly increased with the Morrill Act of 1862. Signed by Abraham Lincoln, it granted land to each state or territory for higher educational programs in vocational arts, agriculture, and home economics. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 and the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 created federal funds for vocational education, agriculture, trades and industry, and homemaking and also created the federal Office of Home Economics. The United States was able to create more home management educational courses in every state.  After WWII, American families began to consume more goods and services than they produced. To guide people in this transition, professional home economics had two major goals:

  • To teach people how to be intelligent consumers,

  • To communicate household needs to manufacturers and political leaders.

  • During the 30 years post-WWII, the United States enjoyed it's most balanced economy in modern history.

In 1963, Congress passed the Vocational Education Act, which granted more funds to vocational education and by 1970, teaching the economics of the home, Home Economics, was required in all public school districts. As early as the 1960s, universities began to rename home economics departments as Human Ecology programs. Current programs include the University of Wisconsin School of Human Ecology, the Cornell University College of Human Ecology, and the University of Alberta's Department of Human Ecology, among others. What is it? Human Ecology, the current title for Home Economics, is interdisciplinary; it is the study of the relationship between humans and their environments, both natural and social. The social is the study of the economics of the home and society, while the natural is the impact of humans in climate change. As economic resources shrink and climate change speeds up, inequality and homelessness grows. There is consequently more attention to individual decision-making as people cope with the rising cost of housing, food insecurity, educational loans and “surprise” medical bills. The content of Human Ecology comes from multiple disciplines. This interdisciplinary knowledge matches the challenges of everyday life which are not one-dimensional.

The challenge of rebuilding personal lives after the corona virus will require comprehensive teaching programs in personal and family sustainability; every single person must learn the fundamentals of feeding, clothing and housing their own family in order to understand new critical systems and enable the country to begin again. The content of Human Ecology courses include:

  • Foods, nutrition, and health

  • Personal finance 

  • Personal presentation and clothing

  • Home and housing

  • Consumer science

  • Household management

  • Child family development

Drawing from such disciplinary diversity is a strength of the profession. The people most in need of Human Ecology education are young people to prevent future poverty and also remedial programs for those living at or below the poverty level. While the reputation of Human Ecology in higher education is gaining importance, there are no Human Ecology programs at the primary or secondary education levels, with one notable exception, Syosset High School, in Long Island, New York. Elsewhere, many parents are now calling for schools to educate the “whole being”, believing that being prepared for life is much more than getting a job. Oregon State University recently has raised the status of their Extension Services (public outreach for Human Ecology) to the level of Vice President. ​ Human Ecology also includes the mental approach to living. One's perception of our complex world results from their ability to comprehend beyond the immediate scene, as in "think global, act local." The full idea of community comes from both the geographic location and the mental and emotional connections to the local community as a way of life. There is also a parallel between ecology and economics, in that both study individuals as members of a large system. The “households of man” and the “household of nature” are integrated to create greater, preventive value. Despite the gender bias, in advanced countries, both men and women are expected to take care of the home, children, and finances. Acknowledging this, schools are just beginning to incorporate life skill courses into their curriculum for all. In the ideal, domestic work is as important as work done outside the home and should be performed by equals who rotate roles, enabling each person to live a life outside the home as well as inside the home.  To sum up, the current income gap, stagnant wages, higher urban populations, the cost of housing, food, medical services, transportation and education, all demand systemic educational changes to include family self-sufficiency and resilience. Without that, it will not be possible to prevent the collapse of more households, the growth of homelessness and the loss of a positive future for so many and their contributions to our society. With the corona virus, we are undergoing a 'great reset' of our world. It is a chance to return to life sustaining priorities that deliver physical and moral relief.  ​