Where Did “Underwater Basket Weaving” Come From?

Man making a furniture under the water

When I was at University, we used to joke and say that my International Relations and political science course were a bit like an underwater basket weaving degree. I am not sure if we understood where that came from, but it is an idiom that has been used a long time in the English language.

Underwater basket weaving is an English language idiom used to describe a fictional college course or degree that is entirely useless. The term was first used in print in the 1950s; since then, it has been used to describe university classes or degrees considered useless. The term underwater basket weaving is in the Urban Dictionary.

At Mondoro, we manufacture baskets, even though we don’t do them underwater, so I became interested to discover where this term came from. Why do people use it to describe a college degree that many see as useless? And why do many people think that baskets are woven underwater?

How Underwater Basket Weaving May Have Come About

In many types of weaving, you soak the material in water to become more pliable and be ready to use in the weaving process. Softening the material is common with many types of material, especially the less pliable materials as weaving willow baskets.

In the American Philatelist Magazine, which is considered one of the world’s oldest magazines, the term “underwater basket weaving” was used to explain how some Eskimos wove some of their baskets,  The American Philatelist Magazine in 1956 wrote:

“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 of basketry are soaked in water and the weavers create their handiwork with their hands and raw materials completely submerged in water throughout the process of manufacture.”

American Philatelist Magazine – 1956

The Eskimos weaving these willow baskets will soak the willow in water to make the willow reed pliable. They will then use the water to help them more easily weave the baskets.

The Eskimos are not submerged underwater and trying to weave the basket while underwater. When most people think about underwater basket weaving, they usually think that someone is underwater trying to weave a basket.

The truth is that the Eskimos were using a technique that many other weavers around the world use. Water is used to make some materials more pliable so the basket weavers can more easily weave the baskets.

Urban Dictionary and Underwater Basket Weaving

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, there were many times that the underwater basket weaving showed up in newspapers. In particular, the term is most often associated with the academic decline of college football programs and the college courses the athletes are majoring in.

Many people use this term in editorials and newspapers or articles; they refer to underwater basket weaving as athletes taking a completely useless course and elementary program to continue playing football or another sport.

The urban dictionary defines the term underwater basket weaving and as:

“fictional college course that is used to mock the typical course load taken by the average Division 1 basketball or football “student-athlete”.

(Example Of How It Is Used)

Advisor: This semester I’m gonna have you take Basketball Theory 101, Geography 100, College Seminar 101 and Underwater Basket Weaving 101 so we can keep you eligible.

Athlete: I don’t know if I can handle all that

Advisor: It’s okay, we have individual tutors for each of those classes that will do your homework for you.

Urban Dictionary

You can see from this definition that underwater basket weaving was a term used to question the ability of many Division I college athletes and their ability to keep up in their college grades and play a sport.

No doubt there are many Division I football or basketball players that were accepted into top-rated colleges or universities even though they may not have had the educational background.

But many athletes did train very hard in both their athletes and their studies. The famous San Francisco quarterback, Steve Young, played as a quarterback for Brigham Young University.

Steve Young graduated from Brigham Young University, my alma mater, to testify how academically challenging and rigorous a school like Brigham Young University is.

Not only was he able to graduate, but he also had good enough grades to get into Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. Steve Young attended law school while playing full-time professional football as the quarterback for San Francisco 49-ers.

Tom Brady played college football for Michigan, another very academically rigorous school. Tom Brady graduated with a 3.3 GPA from the University of Michigan. He played college football and worked part-time, and did some community volunteering.

Both Tom Brady and Steve Young show us that they have the brains to complement their athletic abilities. I do not care how much people think they could cheat through Univerity with some so-called underwater basket weaving classes – I know from my own experience that top-rated schools like Brigham Young University or Univerisity of Michigan will not allow any athletes to cheat their way through school.

Underwater Basket Weaving And The Vietnam War

During the Vietnam war, the phrase “underwater basket weaving” describes a major that someone might take to evade the United States draft for the war. In 1968, US Senator Jordan L Allott criticized some University courses that allowed the young men to find a way to get an exception from the US draft to fight in the Vietnam war.

Senator Allott said this about underwater basket weaving:

“…the situation that we were in after World War II where we had universities setting up courses in underwater basket weaving, and all this sort of thing”

US Senator Jordan L Allott

Where To Learn Underwater Basket Weaving

Some colleges and universities have taken this popular idiom to the next level by offering underwater basket weaving courses. 

Most of the courses are offered as electives, but this shows that colleges and universities offer courses for what was once an utterly fictional class.

Here are some places you can learn underwater basket weaving:

  • Reed College, Portland, Oregon – Each year in January before the second semester, Reed College holds an intermedium period known as Paideia. One of the classes they offer is underwater basket weaving.
  • University of Arizona, Phoenix Arizona – The University of Arizona has offered underwater basket weaving classes from time to time.
  • Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey – Rutgers has offered a course in underwater basket weaving.

Most of these courses are not ongoing courses. Sometimes the Universities have offered the underwater basket weaving course as a joke. Check out your local University, and you may find someone has decided to jump on board and teach a completely useless course as underwater basketweaving.

These elective courses are useless because it is much easier to weave a basket on land than wholly submerged underwater. All the weavers I know and have seen are happy to weave the baskets on dry land.

If you are interested in seeing how Mondoro can help you with your weaving needs– we would love to talk to you to see how we can help you. We help you with most of your weaving needs, except we do not weave underwater.

Find out more about how Mondoro can help you create, develop, and manufacture excellent home decor and home furniture products – don’t hesitate to contact me, Anita. Check out my email by clicking here or become a part of our community and join our newsletter by clicking here.

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Anita Hummel

Hi, I am Anita Hummel. I am the President of Mondoro. I am passionate about helping you CREATE, DEVELOP, and MANUFACTURE home decor and home furnishing products. I am also an avid blogger with a love of travel and riding my motorcycle around the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam.

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