The disintegration of my educational roots and What Human Ecology Taught MeJuly 22, 2015
As a youngster at the career fair, sick of my mall job and certain I had to get out of meaningless labour, I inquired about where I could study to sew. They directed me to the clothing and textiles program, through the department of Human Ecology at the University of Manitoba. This educational path had found me by accident, but it ended up fitting so well with my own personal philosophies.
As of this year, the Faculty of Human Ecology no longer exists, and the department of Textile Sciences been integrated into the department of Biosystems Engineering, Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences. The news spurred me to reflect on what I took from my education, and what it’s absence might mean in the world, and it’s gotten me a little more upset than I thought it would. I was in the last class to graduate from the Clothing and Textiles program before the name changed to Textile Sciences. A fact I am proud of, because I see this name change as a first step in devaluing what Human Ecology stands for, ie: a holistic approach to problem solving involving history, psychology, sociology, and good old experiential knowledge. The name change happened in tandem with the other two departments being renamed Nutritional Sciences and Family Social Sciences. The faculty was obviously trying to mould itself to suit what jobs are being valued financially,(SCIENCE). But what are the ramifications of ignoring the whole picture? By only focusing on one dimension, we are ignoring knowledge that will help expose the root of a problem.
When I tell people I have a bachelor of Human Ecology, I am met with many a blank stare. What IS Human Ecology?….
Originally named Home Economics, the faculty was meant to educate and prepare an individual to manage the home and community, especially in a rural setting. With the main goal of improving the quality of life for the majority, the name change from Home Economics to Human Ecology was intended to lessen gender-biased perceptions of the discipline, and open up applications to consider the growing global economy. Generally, ecology is the study of relationships between groups of organisms and their environment. Specifically, Human Ecology examines human relationships with their three environments (natural, built, and social environments), and remind us of their interconnectedness. The increasing effect humans are having on their environment, demonstrated by urban-rural differences, is related to our values/ beliefs about wealth and resources. To achieve the goal of a high quality of life for the most people/ animals/ ecosystems in the global economy, I believe as a world population we need to focus on the following concepts found in the teachings of Human Ecology:
A holistic perspective– This is a recognition of the intricate web of connection with other living beings and our environment. The full cost of our behaviour is hidden in a capitalist global economy, where production and consumption take place on opposite sides of the earth. Whole awareness prevents unintentional harm to third parties in decision making. It’s up to us to consider how our attitudes and consumption patterns impact others and acknowledge all the consequences.
A general education– When knowledge is not obstructed, undesirable consequences can be avoided. If people are unaware of the harm their actions are causing (to themselves and others), there is no motivation to change their behaviour. A lot of the information we’re fed through the media is chosen for us and crafted to show a certain point of view. When I talk about general education here, I’m referring to the sharing of objective information known to be true, obtained from a credible source or acquired through personal experience.
Value Establishment– If we are to bring about positive change in the world, we need to develop ethical values in the population (especially the youth!), and also, to empower people to change what dissatisfies them. We each need to demonstrate that you can work to make things suit your needs and values, and that small actions DO add up to visible change. We need to connect with like-minded individuals in solidarity to fight oppressive forces such as the global capitalist economy, our patriarchal society, and the belief systems that uphold them. These forces are well established in our daily reality, but are not nearly as strong as all the people who oppose them.
Taking it back to my outdated education…
After gaining relevant knowledge from my Human Ecology degree, I was ready to make my mark on the world, by making clothes on my terms. I had learned how the clothing industry ran, and about the negative impacts of growing production and consumption. I am thoroughly convinced there is a better way to do things, but it will take cooperation and time to halt and reverse the harm we are doing. It will also require a widespread reevaluation of our perceptions regarding “What contributes to a high quality life?” Everyone will have a different answer to this question, but there will certainly be overlap. It is these points of connection that we need to work together on, to achieve the results we want to see.
It seems that in any discussion of Human Ecology, there is a tendency to gloss over the clothing and textiles aspect. Lots of people recognize the importance of nutritional well being, and the positive effects of a healthy family life. (Family defined here as your closest relationships, those you live with, blood relation or not.) But we ALL wear clothes every day, and make decisions about how we want to (or can) present ourselves. We as a population spend a lot of time and/or money dressing ourselves, and our clothing decisions (literally and metaphorically) touch us daily.
We should consider the reciprocal influence between our clothing decisions, and our social, built, and natural environments. What we choose to wear is influenced by our geographical climate, financial means, cultural beliefs systems, personal perceptions of what is pleasing to the eye and touch, and social pressures. Obviously, when someone is wearing something that they feel good in (physically and stylistically), it affects their mood, their interactions with others, and contributes to their general feeling of well being. What we choose to wear affects the larger world as well. In terms of production processes affecting others, yes, but also in terms of how the world perceives us and treats us based on our appearances. This relationship with the world can have grave effects on our mental well being, which can eventually start affecting our physical well being.
Our clothes are the first things that speak for us in a first impression, before you’re even close enough to take in facial features. The colours, fabrics, state of disrepair, or stylistic choices of our clothes put us in a category to everyone we meet. Our clothes give clues to our economic status, affiliated groups, and personal interests. We all make judgments about someone based on their appearances, and it’s how we choose to interact with that person (or behind their backs) that influences the world around us. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Treat people how you want to be treated. In trying to teach these simple lessons to my own children, I realize that there are a lot of grownups who still have yet to learn them.
In this extended rant on what’s wrong with the world and how I think we should fix it, I don’t mean to lay a guilt trip on anyone, or make it seem like I don’t participate in physically or psychologically harmful behaviour. I don’t have the means or energy to make the most thoughtful decisions all the time. But the point is to be conscious and aware, and function on intentions and effort. Little by little we can tweak our behaviour to have a more positive influence on the world.
So my life goals in general are to spread truth, positivity, and concern for others. These are my clothing and textile work goals:
1. To help people feel good in what they’re wearing and contribute to higher feelings of self worth (which spreads positivity in all directions).
2. To encourage diverse personal expression and appreciation for other points of views.
3. To provoke thought about our consumption patterns and perceptions of quality, and make it easier for people recycle or reuse textiles in another productive way.
4. To educate and empower people to repair, alter, and DIY to construct their (textile) environment to suit their specific needs and become more self sustainable.
Here is another idea: I propose a gift economy to lessen our dependance on the capitalist economy, to take some power from an affluent population that isn’t concerned with the rest of the world. When appropriate, and both sides benefit from the other’s gifts/ talents/ goods/ services, we can leave money out of the equation. Each person lowers demand from the economy, which in turn lowers the need for suppliers to produce. It is a way to increase our quality of life without contributing to the economic machine, in a move towards self-sufficiency. It also connects us with our community and builds bridges.
The closing of the Faculty of Human Ecology is a confirming sign to me that if we want to see change in the world that benefits more than the affluent population, matters need to be addressed at a grassroots level. When educational, material, psychological, and nutritional resources are controlled by and available to the financially fortunate, the rest of the world is caught in a vicious cycle that is hard to escape. Decision makers of large institutional systems are influenced by money, which means that the majority of the world population is ignored and/or trampled in the process of capital gain. We can speak to them in the language of dollars through our consumer behaviour. We can consume less harmfully by investing in higher quality products that last, and ethical/ local production processes.