There are some people here who don't need to be; there are some people reading this right now who, deep down, would rather be mechanics or train engineers or, hell, hobos.
But instead, here they are, writing papers on philosophers who died thousands of years ago and learning mathematics they'll never need. Why?
It's because of this overwhelming value America has placed upon a formal education: Everyone needs to go to college - it's become the thing to do. High school seniors are asked where they're going to school; woe-betide the poor kid who says he's not. He's going to have a mountain of explaining to do.
A young man named Casmir can be used to define this expectation: He stole his cousin's ID, enlisted in the Marine Corps underage and served on the aircraft carrier Leyte, where he had some adventures and met the Prince of Wales.
A few years after Cas enlisted, another young man named Ray was driving trucks and raising a family in Troy, N.Y. He taught his kids to play basketball and football and to be honest people.
His sons became firefighters and had families. They never went to college and studied the thoughts of Plato and the backward musings of Aristotle; they never read Greek mythology or Walt Whitman, and they never, when you get down to it, had a good formal study in the fine and liberal arts.
And yet they have good lives.
Cas went on to Notre Dame when the GI Bill came through to become a physical education teacher in New Jersey, but before he made it to college he'd had all the technical proficiency of a Marine and all of the on-the-job training that comes with it.
Ray was a teamster and his sons are experts in hydromechanics, firefighting and wound-dressing. They're essentially battlefield medics with hoses. And none of them needed to go to college to lead great lives.
What's worse is that as we place a higher and higher value on education, we make it less valuable. A bachelor's degree today will get you what a high school diploma would have 20 years ago. A master's degree is the equivalent of a bachelor's, and even that's starting to go south.
Eventually, I foresee a time when we have a graduating class of Ph.D.'s whose degree is worth a high school diploma. Of course, they'll insist that everyone call them "doctor" and we'll have to go through life talking to the thousands of jumped-up students who somehow earned the title. But I digress.
The point is we don't all belong in college. Some of us should be in a garage, some in a restaurant, some behind bars or carrying rifles in the infantry. We need pilots and drivers and carpenters and plumbers. We need undertakers (because people die every day) as much as we need doctors (because people don't want to die every day).
Not everyone is suited or inclined to academic discourse or intellectual pursuits. This is not an elitist argument: on the contrary, it's a humble admission that I have no idea how to perform some tasks that are most important to society. When it comes down to it, I write. And when that comes down to it, the ability to write will neither clothe me nor build my home, and I'm going to pay through the nose for someone more skilled to do so.