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  • Sandra Ericson

AWOL Education in America

There is a missing element in the U.S. education system, a big one, AWOL since the 1980s, made more painful by the obscene U.S. income gap combined with the pandemic. In addition, since the 80s, the U.S. has become one of the most socially complicated countries. We are at the point where a clerical error on a standard form may put your life in danger. This uncertainty means the nation is brittle and fragile, without much slack in the current multi-algorithmic systems that rule our lives. It is not difficult to slip up and go from victor to victim in a few hours.

Initially, the built-in education to counteract uncontrollable modernity was Home Economics — your economics. Chauvinists like to stereotype the field as "stir & stitch," but that was only another slam against women. It taught civilian survival and resilience. It protects physical health and mental stability. It delivered the confidence that one had some control over human failure, at least within your own four walls. Home Ec then became Family and Consumer Science, now called Human Ecology. It still provides preventive/protective physical and mental health, but the content has broadened to include climate and technology defenses. As more realize that it takes more than a degree to remain whole, Human Ecology is gaining value within higher education -- spurred by practical necessity. The mission is still the same: to educate each person to meet human physical and mental needs, including the social skills for keeping families and communities intact. As the second generation of students since the 1980s confront their lives without the info, we can no longer assume that Mom knows and will clue you in. Mom doesn't know either, and she doesn't have time. Plus, men missed it altogether since it was required only for women.

The bald truth is that all human beings need specific instruction to navigate a country as complex and sophisticated as the U.S. The knowledge does not come through osmosis and does not come with age unless you count chancy trial and error. It is one of the reasons for the outsize influence of social media as people seek answers to behavioral, social, and human life decisions they should have learned in school. The underlying reality that human and natural life needs come first, together, has been validated by centuries of history here and on every other continent. The Greeks distinguished between two ideas of happiness, hedonia and eudaemonia, neatly summarizing the eternal human angst of whether to go for temporary pleasures or conserve resources for lifelong flourishing. It is time for schools to stop prioritizing the economic short term and start serving lifetimes, or they will be relegated to eternal treatment and salvage operations instead of educating for prevention and preparation. Many schools now run complete 'missions' for food and welfare.

Schools are obligated to teach people about meeting human needs and co-existing. In their tunnel vision, they have abandoned that duty, believing all is well if a person has a job. That makes employers happy, but it takes more than that to achieve national well-being and unity — as we are finding out. One reason for the recent Great Resignation -- 32 million resigned in 2021 -- is that people innately know that their life needs come first, not the employers' needs, and they are now taking action as they face shortened futures from viruses and climate. Hirshman's, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, comes to mind often. Schools respond with money management classes, which is better late than none but takes a lot more.

Human Ecology education is preventive education — it prevents poverty, broken marriages, traumatized children, homelessness, and poor physical and mental health. It prepares a person for unavoidable life phases from birth to death. It ensures that each student can adapt to change, acquire the cognitive skills to problem-solve for the 16 non-working hours every day, pass the Marshmallow Test, possess cultural intelligence, and sew on a button instead of tossing the shirt and buying another. Human Ecology education serves generations within a family. It builds national human capital. Suppose all schools instituted Human Ecology programs, K-14, and required them for every kid to graduate! Think of the savings in community damage and costs; imagine lower drug use and crime, less fear, more competence and care, and a greater sense of control, achievement, and dignity replacing fear of failure. Human Ecology teaches the skills to keep pace with and counteract contemporary forces and conditions. No one adapts without knowing how or unites around best practices if they have never learned them. Without specific, how-to education on many fronts to prevent personal failure, perpetual rescue after the fact becomes the only option, one government or school program after another. That taxes society, literally. It is unnecessarily redundant and allows the problem to grow with each generation. In 2019, the European Union issued 45 conclusions for adoption by member states, all based upon the human development premise of Human Ecology.

Since Human Ecology education is no longer coming from families, schools are on the hook. Without it, a promising future, by any definition, is wishful thinking.

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