Spring semester: Advanced Underwater Basket Weaving
September 14, 2009 8:55 PM   Subscribe

How did "underwater basket weaving" become the quintessential useless major?

People usually bring up underwater basket weaving jokingly when they want to give an example of a super useless or easy major. Who started this?? Was it a line in a movie or something? A book?
posted by Ashley801 to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Previously discussed.
posted by galaksit at 8:59 PM on September 14, 2009

The wikipedia article on underwater basket weaving is a better source of information than the previous thread.
posted by idiopath at 9:10 PM on September 14, 2009

I think because it was a standard at art schools, yet sounds ridiculous. It's not, of course.
posted by xammerboy at 9:38 PM on September 14, 2009

In my family it was "underwater camel herding". I didn't know it was family-specific until I joked about it with fellow students my freshman year and they laughed at me for not knowing it was "supposed" to be "underwater basketweaving", which seemed less silly to me since, well, there are weavers in my family and when weaving baskets, you do in fact have to keep the material wet. I shared this with my family and was told that yes, this was why they'd come up with "underwater camel herding", since at least there was little water involved with normal camels, and camels are hard to come by in North America, unlike basket-making and baskets. (Who knows though, they may have heard it from somewhere else, but it's been a while and I can't recall ever hearing it elsewhere.)
posted by fraula at 1:20 AM on September 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As a geeky historian I couldn't resist this challenge.

After the American Periodical Series and few Historical Newspapers failed to yield results, I turned to Google Books. Most of the Google Books’ results come only in snippet form. However, I feel confident concluding the term from its earliest days had negative, frivolous and anti-intellectual connotations.

Somewhat more speculative, I bet "underwater basketweaving" was derisive, likely conservative shorthand for the higher education reform of the 1950s and 1960s. This was a time, after all, when social history and women's history, among many other fields, burst onto the scene, and rattled musty old conventions of diplomatic history.

The genealogy of the phrase would make a great research paper in the political history of higher educational reform, or a great FPP.

Anyway, according to Google Books, the first influential print usage was by William F. Buckley. In a 1957 issue of the National Review, Buckley snarked (is snark an anachronism?): "advocates of the reform, remarked that the bored students in the educationists' courses call those dreary subjects "underwater basket-weaving courses..." (vol. 3, 1957, p. 405).

In this nearly useless snippet Buckley suggests that the term precedes his own use of it. As CunningLinguist noted in the previous thread that an early 1950s origin seems likely.

After Buckley, "underwater basketweaving" shows up often in print in the 1960s. In 1961 hearings before the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations a person uttered this cryptic snippeted remark: "They had no facilities for teaching underwater basket weaving, for example, or cosmetology in high schools. Therefore, they were relegated, Mr. Chairman,..."

Also in 1961 The Journal of Physical Education and Recreation observed "... frill in the same league with classes in underwater basketweaving or juvenile delinquency, anti-intellectual enemy of the main mission of education." (Volume 32, 1961, p. 18)

The following year, Norman Bell published Introduction to college life: A book of readings. Bell says that "... programs they offer, though even colleges have sometimes illustrated the trend by offering the type of course referred to as "Underwater Basket Weaving." Alas, the snippet again obscures meaning and context, but the 1962 "Introduction" was popular enough to warrant an expanded 1966 second edition coauthored with a team of writers and given the touchy-feely title Introduction to College Life: Meanings, Values, and Commitment.

But! According to Google Books, the very first appearance of the phrase in print comes from a 1955 issue of The American Philatelist: "Underwater basket weaving is the principal industry of the employables among the 94 Eskimos here. By way of explanation — the native reeds used in this form..." (Vol. 70, p. 50).

Equipose in the previous thread demonstrates that she indeed knows her basketweaving.

The 1955 quote lends support to my thinking that "underwater basketweaving" was a derisive shorthand for new subjects like women, indigenous peoples, and other subsets of social history that went on to become full-blown disciplines in their own right. Each of these fields emerged or experienced a resurgence during the 1950s. The derision makes sense given the tensions of the Cold War, full-blown by 1955.

I ended my search at 1980 by which time "underwater basketweaving" was definitely a staple in conversation US English.

One more thing. Google? If you're listening, snippets suck.
posted by vincele at 1:53 AM on September 15, 2009 [49 favorites]

I want to add quickly that this phrase fits in well with the conservative ethos of the 1950s and 1960s for other reasons. This was the time when many veterans began taking advantage of the 1944 GI Bill (official site; Wikipedia looks sketchy on this topic). Among other things the Bill opened the doors of colleges, universities, and trade schools. These institutions had previously been prohibitively expensive and out of reach for many (and remain so to this day). The GI Bill leveled the playing field between classes somewhat. So "underwater basketweaving" may very well be an elitist and conservative reaction to the democratization of higher education and to the government promotion of trade schools under the Bill.
posted by vincele at 2:49 AM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I always thought it was a joke along the lines of telling the freshmen that there is a pool on the 4th floor of a 3-story building and that you need to buy a pass for the elevator. I imagined that it was art class mixed with scuba class-- that is, YOU are the one underwater and the basket you're weaving just happens to be there too. Who knew there actually is such a thing as underwater basket weaving!
posted by jschu at 4:24 AM on September 15, 2009

Never heard the "underwater" part, but "basket weaving" was used as a derisive term for easy majors at least a couple generations back, because I first heard it used by my mother (b. 1926) when I was a child.
posted by nax at 6:52 AM on September 15, 2009

Underwater? Never heard that before, it's always been just "basket weaving". Is "underwater" really a common variation of the phrase?
posted by autodidact at 11:02 AM on September 15, 2009

I've heard it both ways, and had always assumed that "underwater" was added later, to embroider mere "basket-weaving" with extra absurd pointlessness. I am frankly amazed and a little incredulous to find that it refers to a real practice (softening basket materials in water before weaving them).

If the description of this practice comes only from the American Philatelist magazine, I wonder why they're running an article on basketweaving, and could it have been a parody - an elaboration of an existing joke?
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:14 PM on September 15, 2009

I find this a lot less funny since I had to take actual basketweaving in a college class. Yup, for credit.

I actually went to a conference this year that offered "underwater basketweaving" as a class, except with ah, virtual water.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:19 PM on September 15, 2009

LobsterMitten: I wonder if it was in an article about a series of stamps that featured indigenous crafts or crafters? (Too lazy to research.)
posted by epersonae at 7:30 AM on September 16, 2009

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