In Defense of Studying “Basket Weaving” At College

Cultural subjects mocked for being frivolous are often profound and useful

Clive Thompson

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Photo by Robert Linder on Unsplash

Last week, Nathan Heller published a long reported piece in the New Yorker that explored the dramatic decline in students studying the humanities at college.

The reasons for the decline are manifold, but one big driver is the economy: College in the US is brutally expensive, so students (and their parents) understandably want assurance that the degree will help in building a well-paying career path. The humanities seem, to many of these folks, to be worryingly nontechnical.

Or worse: Frivolous! As one student put it …

“My parents, who were low-income and immigrants, instilled in me the very great importance of finding a concentration that would get me a job — ‘You don’t go to Harvard for basket weaving’ was one of the things they would say,” she told me.

Basket weaving!

It’s an age-old joke. Whenever people are casting about for an example of a particularly useless subject matter, “basket weaving” is Exhibit A. Google News is clotted with examples just from the last few weeks: Recently, Kimberly Guilfoyle criticized “people [who] want to have some bizarre basket weaving degree, and they want all of us to subsidize their laziness and their inability to even try to contribute to society”. When an Australian politician was recently criticizing what he regarded as waste in educational spending, he sniped about public dollars “that subsidised everything from energy healing to basket weaving”. A business school director joked about “advanced basket weaving” as if it were an actual major; online commenters snark about it, too.

Yet here’s the thing: As jokes go, it’s totally off-base.

That’s because basket weaving would be a completely awesome subject to study at college. It would open the doors to an absolute treasure-trove of intellectually rich subjects — spanning science, design, history, economics, culture, and more. Far from being a fey, pointless exercise, a course on basket weaving would help students grasp how wonderfully entangled are all these intellectual domains, which are too often taught as if they had no relation to one another.

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net