What do you do with a B.A. in English?

By Matt Roach, chair of the English Department

Peddie’s extraordinary winter musical, “Avenue Q,” featured many songs that induced astonishment from the audience.

I felt eyes on me right away, during the opening number, “What do you do with a B.A. in English?," and so I laughed extra hard, hoping to show that I, and the whole Peddie English Department, can take a joke. Ha-ha! It’s funny because English is useless! I thought to myself darkly, crying on the inside.

The question and song have continued to haunt me in the hours and days since, and it doesn’t help that the tune is stuck in my head. “What do you do … with a B.A. in English?”

What, indeed?

My own answer is pretty basic: I teach other people English. This has worked out very well, as I have a job that I love and a degree that I use every day.

To me, the true value of majoring in English — or taking it at Peddie — is to be able to read the world around you and question the premises and easy answers of society.

And while teaching is, for me, the ideal career, there are other utilitarian answers to the glib question the song poses. Emma Watson has a B.A. in English, so acting is on the table. Toni Morrison’s glorious writing career began with an English major. Mitt Romney majored in English, so you could run a successful business, govern a state, and then run for President and Senate.  If you’re interested in finance, you might study English like Hank Paulson, former CEO of Goldman Sachs and Secretary of the Treasury. You could also create musicals like “Avenue Q” (the show’s co-writer was an English major).

But answering this question based simply on utility is too simple (even though that’s the whole joke). To me, the true value of majoring in English — or taking it at Peddie — is to be able to read the world around you and question the premises and easy answers of society.

As an English major, you learn to appreciate great art (like Peddie’s musicals) and articulate the reasons for its greatness. Like Avenue Q’s protagonists, you engage in a lifelong search for purpose. You think on multiple levels of meaning, so you’re able to spot insidious advertisements, discern credible news sources, and recognize hypocrisy in politicians. You become an expert on social media, and your texting skills are unparalleled.

Peddie English Department Chair Matt Roach teaches class

Peddie English Department Chair Matt Roach says that as an English major, you learn to think on multiple levels of meaning.

What do you do with a B.A. in English (or 1–4 years of English at Peddie)? Whatever the heck you want to do — and you’ll do it with communication skills, the ability to perceptively read people and artistic works, and the understanding that life is a joyful experience.

Matt Roach is the chair of the Peddie English department.