When I was a sophomore in high school in Colorado in the late 1950s, I was required, as were all female students, to take a course in “home economics.” The home economics movement had emerged out of a progressivist desire to “scientize” a hitherto amateur activity. The complicated tasks of mothering and homemaking were to follow the time flow, managerial innovations in other spheres. I recall filling out charts in which meal preparation was divided and subdivided and subdivided again into micro-management tasks of precise refinement: 3:30, wash and snap string beans; 3:52, start water to boil; 4:00, put snapped, washed beans into boiling water; 4:03, after beans have come to a boil, cover and simmer—that sort of thing. One had to check off each task as it was completed and note any variation on the time chart. (I will confess here, for the first time, that I fudged my chart to make it look as if every task got done right on the dot.)
Astonishingly, a meal often resulted from all this, but, more often than not, the poor, beleaguered, scientific cook had lost her appetite. But she could be sustained by the knowledge that she was a pioneer. The experts had designed this, after all, to protect innocent husbands and children from the ministrations of the ill-informed amateur cook. Science had come to the kitchen.
One day—a day of great excitement at Cache La Poudre High School—a real expert, a visiting Home Economics Management consultant, sent all the way from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Washington, D.C, no less, was going to do us the honor of presenting the latest scientific research on child management. All of us eager home economics students were enjoined to bring our mothers to the event. Indeed, Mrs. Y. made it very clear that it would be a blot on our own records if our mothers refused to attend.
Prevailing upon my mother to come was made rather easier by the fact that my father was the superintendent of schools. If she were absent it would reflect on him, not just on the daughter who was becoming increasingly vociferous as a supporter of scientifically managed households. We, mothers and daughters, all sat round the home economics room. The expert from Washington, D.C. walked in. I stared. I had never seen a professional woman before. She smelled of perfumed soap and her high heels clicked smartly on the freshly waxed schoolroom floor. Her hair was all in place and smooth, like a twirly ice cream cone, and she had a perfectly drawn line where eyebrows usually are. Her skin was pale and smooth, quite unlike that of the ruddier, weather-worn complexions of Colorado women who spent quite a bit of time, whether they were farmers or not, working outdoors. Her talk was entitled: “New Scientific Theories of Child Rearing.” I don’t remember what those theories were; I just remember feeling impressed at how impressed I felt.
My mother, though, started tapping her right foot—always a bad sign. When the Expert finished she asked for questions, with the most benign and self-certain expression on her face. My mother raised her hand; I sank into my chair. “Tell me,” mother asked, “do you have children of your own?” “No,” the expert replied, “No, I don’t have children but I have studied . . . “ Mother cut her off with, “Well, I don’t think you have very much to tell us, then.” And she got up and left. How humiliated I was. I sat red-faced in my chair, wondering if I should apologize for my mother’s shockingly anti-progress, anti-science stance. In the end I didn’t. Instead, I fumed for days.
My mother, of course, was right. Not because she was, in our current lingo, “privileging” first-person experience—certainly mother would have countenanced all sorts of narratives of child rearing told by women in diverse circumstances who had had some hands-on experience of it. There wasn’t one universal child-rearing experience. But what she would not countenance was the presumption of the managers, the engineers, the promulgators of programs, convinced always that they knew better than the undereducated actually involved in doing such things as childrearing, farming, sewing, preparing food—the presumption that led the “experts” to attempt to eviscerate local knowledge in the name of progress.
In this scheme of things, tradition was always backward, always that which must be overcome. And in the putting down of tradition, it was women who were the losers, their generations-old streams of practical reason brought under pressure to succumb to the superior force of scientific management in all its guises—medicinal, educational, nutritional. That is a long, long story. My mother versus the scientific child-rearer was but one border skirmish in an extended and continuing war.
Perhaps I can put it rather more fancily: It is a mistake, often a mistake for which real people in real situations pay the price, too readily to equate the rhythms of intellectual life with the rhythms of social and political life. It is far easier to seize and abandon epistemological positions, or take categorical positions—to reject this and to embrace that—in intellectual affairs than in dealing with the thick matter of actual lived life. When we don’t attend to local knowledge and lived experience, our politics grows eerily abstract and impositional. We begin to assume that because we have arrived at this position or that as a result of oh-so-careful argument, our views must in some sense come closer to the “truth” than positions not similarly thought out or tested through argument.
This, I think, helps to account for the congealment of current political debates. Positions have hardened and become ever more disassociated from their points of origin and concern. They return as alienated constructions—imposed on rather than flowing from the rhythms of everyday life. The widespread sense that all is not well, that something has gone terribly awry, is at least in part a reflection of the alienation of our politics. It is especially a reflection of the increasingly baroque academic forms of politics, which are not only severed from the realities of life as confronted by the vast majority of Americans but seem to have become un tethered altogether—a kind of danse macabre performed by those who, like that Expert from Washington so many years ago, have far too lofty a sense of their overall importance in the scheme of things. But preaching humility to academics is like telling my Sheltie not to bark: an exercise in futility. The whole point of this short vignette, then, is simply to let my mother know that she was right.
Jean Bethke Elshtain is Centennial Professor of Political Science and Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is author of Women and War (1987) and Power Trips and Other Journeys, recently published by the University of Wisconsin Press.