Big Ideas:
Varsity Housekeeping
Thursday, 7 July 2011

This afternoon at lunch, I was reading Ken Auletta’s profile of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, a woman who feels passionately that “The Nº 1 impediment to women succeeding in the workforce is now in the home…” A page or so later, something else gave me what I think is a great idea. 

Many women in the room were among the rotating cast of two hundred whom Sandberg invites to her home each month for a buffet dinner and to listen to and question special guests, who have included Steinem, the playwright Eve Ensler, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, the educator Geoffrey Canada, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. 

Being me, as asked myself what I would have to say to these high-powered career women. Maybe not much — but perhaps I could talk to their husbands. My wife may not be a Silicon valley billionaire, but she’s a leader in her professional field. True, we don’t have children; and it’s also true that I don’t have to show up for work anywhere. But let’s face it, it’s not the pressing demands of a top job that prevents men from doing more than desultorily helping out at home. Most men haven’t got a clue about what goes into keeping house. Their mothers, in all likelihood, saw to it that they don’t. This saddles wives with a problem.

We will all agree that marriage is a learning experience for everyone, but there are perhaps a few courses that might be taught as prerequisites, and housekeeping is an obvious candidate. A woman oughtn’t to have to teach the man she loves how to empty a dishwasher any more than she has to teach him how to kiss. It may never be as easy to identify good vacuuming skills as it to spot a good kisser, but that’s where my idea comes in. There is no need for kissing credentials — to borrow a fashion term, they’re self-degreed. But wouldn’t it be nice if a woman could know that not only did her fiancé attend a great college but also that he passed its housekeeping course? If mothers aren’t going to do the job, then perhaps higher education can make itself useful for a change. 

Here’s how it would work. Undergraduates electing the program — which would be non-academic but as rigorous as participation in any athletic team — would be assigned to four- or six-man suites. The suites would include kitchens and laundry facitilities. Household duties would rotate among the suitemates. At first, you might only have to cook once a week, and do the laundry once every two weeks. Eventually, though, you’d have to feed and clean a suite for two weeks at a time — all the time carrying your courseload. Forget all that hogwash about “nurturing”; the food would have to be tasty and “hot food hot,” and the clothes would have to be clean and neatly folded. Suites would be very regularly examined by advisers — drafted from the ROTC program, perhaps. (Who might themselves learn a thing or two. There is a lot to be said for military tidiness, but of course  it stresses personal responsibility, not picking up after others.) The designated housekeeper would have to stock the suite with groceries and cleaning products from a school commissary, observing some kind of budgetary constraint. The course would be pass-fall, with the pass-fail rate geared more toward Navy SEAL selectivity than rocks for jocks. 

No one would be thrown into this program without a little advance training. In domestic boot camp, students would learn how to wash clothes properly and how to prepare a variety of basic foods, especially soups, salads, and stews. Nutrition and utility would be stressed. Grilling steaks would be discouraged. In a really well-run program, students would be forbidden to import snack foods from the outside world. Hey, this is school we’re talking about, not an amusement park! In the advanced programs, suites would be divided between men and women — but the women would not contribute to the housekeeping. At all. Ever. This would also be a training program, in its way, for them.

Readers inclined to dismiss my proposal as jocular ought to reflect for a moment. Housekeeping has undergone great changes in the past 50 years, but coming resource constraints and increased preventive-health awareness are going to require an even greater transformation. Men who are clueless about the day-to-day basics of feeding a household and keeping it safely clean aren’t going to be of much help. Quite the reverse.

To avoid confusion with Harvard, Haverford, and the University of Houston,
varsity housekeepers would be awarded minuscule h’s to sew onto their pristine butchers’ aprons.