What do you do with a BA in English?

Why does this make me think of my oldest son? He's an English major, of course!
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Avenue Q is just about my favorite musical of all time. Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson edges ahead sometimes depending on my mood, but I can't help but think of my oldest son whenever the first line of Avenue Q's theme song starts leaking from a set of earbuds (which happens with remarkable frequency in my house):

What do you do with a B.A. in English, What is my life going to be? Four years of college and plenty of knowledge, Have earned me this useless degree.

Why does this make me think of my oldest son? Because he's an English major, of course! Well, a Professional Writing major, but still, his minor in theater adds some extra bang for my tuition buck, right?

Removing my tongue from my cheek briefly, I have to tell a quick story about one of my other kids. He's 16 and just had to write a research paper and give an oral report for his English class. He got a B on the written portion, but a D on the oral portion because he didn't look at the audience. He was appalled. "How can I look at the audience when I have to be looking at the board?" he exclaimed.

I naively asked why he had to look at the board. "How else am I supposed to read my PowerPoint?" he responded.

I should have known.

All of a sudden, that BA in English with a minor in theater started to look awfully attractive. I can't think of a more important "21st Century Skill" than communication, whether written or verbal. A bit of theater? Gee, maybe he'll be able to think on his feet and improvise and actually glance away from the projector or his feet and talk to his audience, whether that audience is in a boardroom or a lecture hall. There is nothing more disconcerting than watching a business leader reading from notes or delivering a death-by-PowerPoint presentation, droning on about slides that I could just as easily read myself on a set of handouts. Disconcerting because by the time someone is in a position of leadership, they should be able to speak extemporaneously and yet remarkably common.

Kid #3 (the 16-year old) should be so lucky as to have some experience on stage and I could have hugged his English teacher for calling him out on his public speaking. Only a tiny minority of our students graduate high school (or college, for that matter) with the ability to deliver an effective presentation. We should get rid of standardized tests and just make every high school senior give a 15-minute oral presentation on an infographic they prepare with an accompanying slide deck. Anyone who reads their deck or loses their audience before the 15 minutes is up doesn't get to graduate. It's not exactly a "standardized" test, but talk about outcomes-based education!

I don't know what Kid #1 will do with his BA in English (OK, writing...whatever!). Maybe he'll write the next great American novel. Maybe he'll be a marketing rockstar. Maybe he'll write for ZDNet. Maybe he'll be the next Sondheim. It doesn't matter. The more I think about it, the more I wish my doctors had been English majors. Maybe they could at least fake some bedside manner and communicate clearly with their patients. Honestly, an engineer with a BA in English could rule the world. There aren't too many people who can bridge the gap between engineers and users with a truly effective grasp of the English language in all of its forms or present technical concepts without making audience members start gnawing their arms off to escape.

It isn't too much of a stretch to say that a degree in English (or communications, or whatever) might just be one of the more useful and relevant degrees a student could obtain, with applications across a wide variety of disciplines. The point of college remains to learn to think (and master beer pong, of course); that can happen with a degree in biophysics just as easily as a degree in the humanities. That liberal arts major, though, just might have better job prospects in a knowledge economy than the biophysics major who avoided English and public speaking courses like the plague.

I started out as a biophysics major in college. This lasted until I took organic chemistry. I quickly switched to public health which, through a part-time job, morphed into a degree in information systems with a focus on statistical computing and healthcare IT. Interestingly, though, the single class that was more useful to me than any other, where I learned things that I couldn't have learned from a book or online, was a public speaking class.

Useless degree? I think not.

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