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Question: Why do we make kids go to school for what seems like hundreds of years before they're allowed to become real people?

Answer: You've heard of Higher Education? The real trend is toward Longer Education.Kids start school sooner and finish later. Formal preschool, complete with tests and admissions requirements, starts at the age of 4. Fourteen years or so later, the student can expect to receive a high school diploma, a credential that by itself will enable the student to enter the lower-middle class.

That's why three in five students with high school diplomas keep going to school even longer, so they can get a college degree that will enable them to receive well-written rejection letters on classy corporate stationery. Now more and more are getting postgraduate degrees. By the time you actually enter the job market, senescence is setting in.

"We're creating a credential-driven society, in which the way you gain mobility is to have a credential," complains Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Boyer says that soon it will be common for people to spend 30 years of their life in school. Ironically, kids are becoming biologically mature at a younger age than ever before.

"Physiologically they are becoming more and more adult even as we keep them institutionalized in this childlike institution," Boyer says.

Why does this system exist?

To some extent we are just warehousing young people. There aren't many jobs for teenagers. Indeed, we have invented this whole concept of "adolescence" as a way of pushing back adulthood.

School, says Boyer, has "a custodial function. We do not have any place in our society for 16-year-olds. In early days, when the economy was primarily agrarian, children went to school only when they weren't needed on the farm."

Michael Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford, says, "We need to use the schools as an aging vat."

Kirst says that Longer Education is driven by market forces. A lot of jobs don't really necessitate that someone have a college-level education, but the bosses require it anyway.

"It's a measure of persistence. It's a character trait. If you can slog through all those years, you're the kind that can slog through my workplace," says Kirst.

OK, so school has other benefits as well. You learn things! That is good. Knowledge is power and all that.

The origin of mass education was a noble enterprise of the late 19th century. Before then, only elites had much formal education. America's place as an economic superpower is partly the result of early emphasis on educating everyone.

No country sends as many of its students to college. Even today, many European nations, such as the former West Germany, send fewer than half as many of their students on to college as the United States does. Kirst points out that America is particularly advanced in educating women. One in four 24-year-old women in the United States has a degree from a four-year college or university; in Japan only one in eight women have such a degree.

You always hear that America has a terrible educational system and second-rate students. It's not remotely true. Our educational system is the envy of the world. We have more smart students than anyone. We also have a lot of underachievers. (It's unclear why. But other societies tend to be more homogenized than America and don't have as great a gap between the advantaged and disadvan- taged.)

Now, as you students out there prepare your essays on How I Nearly Became Brain Dead On My Summer Vacation, here's a question for you: Why is there summer vacation?

Normal human beings work all year. The Why staff works 24-7-365. Adulthood is an endless grind. Why do you snotty kids get this cushy summer gig?

Simple: School sticks to tradition, and traditionally we all worked on farms. As late as 1900 about 80 percent of Americans still lived on farms. Students took the entire summer off to tend the fields.

It sounds almost as brutal as camp.

The Mailbag:

Sofia B. of Washington, D.C., asks, "Why do Chinese food containers have such an elaborate fold system? Is it origami gone amok?"

Dear Sofia: That would be pretty far amuck, given that origami is Japanese.

The Chinese food containers are officially called "take-out pails." The genius of their design is not the folding. What's more important is that the tapered shape allows them to be stacked in sleeves and transported in large numbers. Moreover, they don't get soggy. Cheap paper will also get soggy, but take-out pails are made of special solid bleached sulfate paper with a polyvinyl chloride inner lining (it's incredible the things we know). That stuff is "the most expensive paperboard that you can get," says Suzy Faigen, spokeswoman for Sterling Paper, based in Philadelphia.

The pails aren't just used for Chinese food. Without the metal handle, and with the sides glued together, the pails are used for ice cream, and have been for decades. They are also used for transporting fish from pet stores.

Helpful hint: Make sure you always keep your pet store pails and your Chinese food pails in separate locations.