Musings + Essays

What Would You Study If You Were Going to School Tomorrow?

By: Jen Shoop

Imagine for a minute some alternate universe in which everyone was invited to a year of cost-free, compulsory education at some point in her adult years with a guarantee that you could return to your current job at the end of it with no penalty, if you so chose. What would you elect to study? Something to advance your current career path? Something to help with a complete career change? Something hobby-oriented? Something you wish you knew more about? Something you always regret not studying?

I half-wish I would say something practical, like accounting, which might be technically helpful as a self-employed entrepreneur. And I half-wish I would say something esoteric, in the realm of philosophy or theology, which might challenge me to think outside of the constructs in which I move so comfortably.

But I would 100% go back for more literature, possibly high modernism again or maybe fin de siecle or less predictably Gothic, which has long interested me as a mode rather than a period of time. (There are several first-rate Gothic novelists that write now, Ruth Ware chief among them. And looking a few decades back, many consider “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” a quintessentially Gothic text. There are entire conferences about it!)

My brother is a published academic (you can find his book on Herman Melville and ecology on Amazon!) and when I read what he writes, it’s as if gears in my brain are slowly creaking into motion after years of rust and disuse. It would be invigorating to oil that machinery, to rescue it from obsolescence, to more nimbly move between text and theory, to draw from a deeper well of reference and critical thought. I think a year of focused study would inform and improve writing work, too: when I read great books, I find, to borrow from Seamus Heaney, “the air around and above me alive and signalling.” Everything, in the words of Nora Ephron, becomes copy. And I mean that in the least clinical of interpretations. When I read well, the world around me swells with invitation. Metaphors present themselves. Stories unfurl, unbidden. I tumble into the open-handed wideness of language.

What about you? What would you study if a year of no-strings-attached, elective, cost-free education presented itself?


+I see this query as distinct from my earlier thoughts on what I would study in college if I could do it all over again. I am still unsure on whether I would advise my children to pursue a degree in the humanities. English is not wool-gathering, but it makes for a challenging transition to the working world. I do still so value the great gift of my degrees in English, the “or maybes…the accommodation of a multitude of narrative possibilities. English trained me to look at a single word and ask: “but why this one?” and to recognize a certain rhyme scheme and ask “what if it were another?” I am forever shaped by the way those questions both exact and forgive.”

+Things to say yes to.

+One of my favorite poems, ever.

+10 books that will change your life.

+The best book I read in the last ten years. I think I am going to listen to this as a book on tape next. I am currently listening to Matthew McConaughey’s Green Lights. (You know I have a thing for celebrity-narrated audiobooks.)

Shopping Break.

+Currently on my investment shoe lust list: Manolo Blahnik Maysales, possibly in this fun blue or in a more versatile nude.

+Oh my Lord, I love this quilted coat for fall, and this one with the shearling collar is TRES chic too.

+Of course, you can’t beat my favorite $98 quilted liner jacket, which I have worn heavily the last two falls in a row.

+ICYMI: all my fall favorites here.

+Fun folding stool.

+Clever way to hide cords.

+These coasters are brilliant — they absorb condensation! Come in tons of patterns/prints, but I love the sea creatures. I discovered these via my friend Grace.

+Love this outdoor chaise!

+Wanted to update on the toddler backpack search — I shared some initial finds here, but I think I’ve narrowed the options for mini down to this Paravel (which you can have personalized, or personalize yourself with patches like these) or this Cam Copenhagen. I like that both are small and super lightweight on their own. And, of course, blue for my blue-loving gal.

+Now on my makeup lust list: Saie’s Sun Melt (cream bronzer).

+In case you’re looking to refresh your bathroom.

+Outdoor side table — comes in a great blue, along with a few other colors. And don’t forget this $120 set of two patio chairs and table! Love the colors!

+Seriously fun top.

+Striped paper table runner — make an outdoor gathering ultra-chic!

+OK, adore this scalloped ottoman.

+More chic ottomans and benches.

+These are my favorite dishes for children — microwavable, dishwasher safe, with sections that are the perfect depth (deep enough to hold applesauce/yogurt/soupy things). Come in the best colors, too!

+Yellow and white stripe outdoor pillows. So cheerful.

+Sweet magnolia print jammies for a little.

+Cute striped duvet for a little man.

+Shirtdresses are basically appropriate in any season.

+Looking for tiny pleasures in every day life.

+More great nursery bedding.


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23 thoughts on “What Would You Study If You Were Going to School Tomorrow?

  1. I LOVE THIS QUESTION! Like you (and Melinda) I thrive in an academic environment and would be happy as a clam as a perpetual student! I’ve always said that I hope to audit many classes at a local university once I’m retired 🙂

    If given one year, though, I would be tempted to re-up on art history (one of my undergrad majors, the other being French) — and I would love that, of course, but realistically, I would learn German. This has always been a goal of mine but now I work for a German company and I’d love to have conversations with colleagues in their native language. It would also come in handy if I ever realize my (highly unlikely) dream of getting my PhD in art history, given the time period I’d want to research. Languages have always come very easily to me, but to date I’ve only taken courses in Romance languages so I would love to open up my world a bit by learning something different! I’d also love to learn Japanese …


    1. Love how many linguists we have in this bunch!! So impressive. Would be so cool to be able to surprise your colleagues by chiming in unexpectedly in their native tongue!


  2. Geriatrics. My parents cared so well for my grandparents in their old age and I want to do the same for my parents. I really loved having grandmas in the house and it felt like a privilege to give them love and dignity to the very end.

    1. Allyson! This brought tears to my eyes. So lovely and so generous. I am to do this for my parents as well <3

  3. Oooh I love this question, and I enjoyed reading the responses from other readers as well!

    I’d go to culinary school and focus on pastry. I hear people say, skip culinary school (and save $$$$) and do an apprenticeship with a chef (or is the industry term “stage”, I think?) instead. But since we’re fantasizing here… yes, I’d study pastry!

    I’d also study foreign languages. I took a year of French in college but didn’t do much with it. I also studied a bit of Spanish — my main regret (which I try not to have, but there it is) is not learning Spanish from my late grandfather, who grew up speaking it. When we were growing up we were already learning/speaking 2 languages and perhaps the thinking at the time was that a third language would be confusing? Of course now we know it would have been so much easier to learn from childhood… and what a shame because I now live in California where Spanish fluency is an asset!

    1. Ooh yes! I think this would be Mr. Magpie’s answer, too — back for cooking school. I’ll have to ask him tonight actually. Love the idea of learning a language, too!!


  4. I often reflect on my education path and would absolutely make different decisions if I went back in time (hindsight truly is 20-20). If money were no object, I would be a perpetual student since I thrive in that setting.

    Narrowing down a subject for only 1-year is tough, but I think I would likely focus on becoming more proficient in either my Spanish or French. I’d love to be truly bilingual and with immersion and intensive study, could get close in 1 year. I already got through upper division courses in both, though that was over a decade ago. I would 100% use this opportunity to study abroad! What a fun concept to consider.

    While I think adults would relish this opportunity, I think an ideal world would actually require a gap year after high school for everyone. Students would spend time volunteering, traveling, gaining some work and life experience. I know I would have had a better appreciation for my education and future if I had some more real world context and knowledge beforehand.

    1. Oh Melinda, yes to this: “If money were no object, I would be a perpetual student since I thrive in that setting.” Me too! I think it’s my most comfortable state. Although I haven’t been in a classroom in a long, long time now…

      I love the idea of immersing in a language for a year. I wish I had the discipline to make a more focused practice of French (i.e., go to meet-ups/brush up classes at L’Alliance Francaise, etc.). Maybe one day…


  5. What a great question! I’m torn between three:

    1. Art history. As a lifelong museum, art, history, and culture lover, I crave a way to formally study the artists, movements, and historical impact of various periods of art & related social movements. (have toyed with enrolling in one of these Smithsonian courses for awhile now:

    2. Economics. I never took a single economics/finance course in undergrad and lament it now, as someone who tangentially works in a finance-focused field. I’m genuinely fascinated by macro and micro economics as I learn on the job and would relish a formal course of some sort, beyond my daily WSJ reading-then-googling-terms. (But loathe the thought of the math/statistics aspect! Much more interested in the geopolitics and real-world applications of various economic theories and modern day decision making).

    3. Anatomy & physiology (perhaps with some sort of anthropology or kinesiology undertone?). I came very close to the coursework needed to minor in anthropology, but with the demands of an Honors program/thesis, never quite made it. I LOVED physiology, anatomy, and biology classes in high school and have retained a weird knowledge of all sorts of body/malady/etc. things to this day. I’m also fairly athletic and active, so I would find musculature/activity-based physiology fascinating for a deep dive. However, similar to the economics coursework hedging, I would *strictly* want to do anatomy/physiology and not any of the microbiology/chemistry/etc. that my friends on medical paths have suffered through!

    PS – I bought that Saie cream bronzer in the lightest color last week, after seeing a few people post about it. LOVED the formulation, but it was incredibly orange on my (fair) skintone. Like, laughably so. Unfortunately, a miss for me!

    1. Hi! Thanks for the input on the Saie bronzer — yikes! Think I’ll be skipping then since I am fair, too…

      I love that some of us responded with something very focused and others of us imagined going in multiple different directions! So many interests and motivations. I would also have loved to study art history — the subject area often presented itself in my literature courses for obvious reasons and I always enjoyed the challenge of applying literary frameworks/principles to different media.

      So funny, I really enjoyed microbiology in high school — so odd. But I loved how everything was so legible, glossable, with procedures that followed specific steps. Almost like diagramming sentences? I don’t know, but I really thrived in that section of AP BIO.


  6. Oh only a year is tough – going to cheat the question a little and say I’d do one of the accelerated 18 month nursing programs. I loved science-y things in high school but never pursued it in college. What a treat to get to see if this inkling I’ve had over the last few years is actually a path to follow.

    Funnily enough though, after three years out of college in the “working world” I’m starting law school next week. I don’t really like being a student (the papers! The feeling like there’s always more to do, read, study! The looming text anxiety! The dense readings!) but here we are! I am excited for some new school supplies though – ha!

    1. So interesting, Molly, that you’d pick nursing if you had your druthers (and no responsibility / expectation to follow through with it), yet you are about to enroll in law school. Such a clear reflection of how complicated these life decisions are, how they are also laden with other motivations and expectations and all that. Good luck getting back into the swing of school!!!


  7. If it were only a year, I think I’d do creative writing — a condensed MFA, if that’s a thing? The thought of dedicated time to just write and read and learn from great writing is pretty irresistible! But if I could somehow wrangle a PhD, I’d want to do it in linguistics, with a focus on moribund languages. We are losing them with depressing speed, and being able to help stave off the extinction of one, even in some small way, would feel meaningful.

    1. Oo yes to the compressed MFA. I did take a few undergrad courses in creative writing and they always struck me as too free-form at the time, but now…I’m salivating.

      Love the note on linguistics, too!


  8. What a fantastic question. I would choose accounting. I love my job and would appreciate a structured curriculum to supplement what I know instead teaching myself. I’m curious about what my family and friends would choose- thank you for the dinner table topic!

  9. I think about this all the time, actually. I studied English, and I have the best memories of my courses and the things I read and wrote. But I had the hardest time finding a job and ended up in something I don’t love.
    I had always been interested in nursing, but my mother and all the other nurses in our family urged me not to go into it. I often wonder what my life might be like if I hadn’t listened.

    1. Hi Tricia – This is so fascinating. I wonder why your family members discouraged nursing? I agree with you on English w/r/t the job market, too. When I was first starting out, I felt like potential employers dismissed it as either too esoteric or assumed I would only be good at writing and could not handle other aspects of various positions (?). I finally ended up landing an entry-level job in government consulting based solely on where I’d gone to school, if I am honest. It had nothing to do with my degree and everything to do with the fact that they employed a lot of recent college grads from local schools and UVA happened to have a good reputation.

      Anyway, so many “but what ifs…”?


    2. The “what ifs” are infinite! Recently at a dentist appointment, the hygienist shared that she wished she’d gone to nursing school and I told her that my mother (a nurse) wished she’d gone into dental hygiene. The grass always seems greener, I suppose.
      I think it’s so interesting how my family of nurses discouraged me from that path, likely because of the hard things in their job. Similarly, my husband is a teacher and does not encourage others to go into the profession. As a parent, I wonder what I might do to guide my daughter – or how I might accidentally get in her way.

      1. I have been thinking a lot about this, too! A reader once questioned why I’d said I would discourage my children from entrepreneurship — i.e., what am I shielding them from? Is that helpful or not? It is really hard to sit back when you know how difficult a given path is, how unlikely to lead to success…but I would never want to prevent my children from pursuing a passion. So hard to figure out the balance.


    3. “How I might accidentally get in her way.” I think about this a lot as a parent. I half-wanted to major in Psychology in college, but didn’t have a clear idea of what I would do with it. My dad discouraged me and that was that. He meant well, but I always wonder what if. So there’s my answer – one year deep dive into psychology!

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