R.H. Delderfield's classic school novel, To Serve Them All My Days, describes "the lump," the block of students who move through a school without being much affected by their "education." They have brains enough to be engaged and transformed by their studies. They just aren't curious about what is being taught. The lump isn't changed by their schooling, and don't really want to be. What they want from school is a good social time and a punched ticket to a better job than they would have otherwise.
A light feature story I read profiled some students who had just finished their first year of college. The opening was something like "They have just been through a year of hard work, intense discussions, and late night study sessions. Yeah, right." The young people had successfully completed freshman year at some big state universities. Now they had found undemanding summer jobs to give their lives structure. They were shown sitting by the pool, playing cards. When asked to describe their first year of college, they said nothing about the books they read, the classes they took, the challenging diversity of people they met, or the life-changing discussions they engaged in. The only part of their college experience they thought worth mentioning were the fraternities and sororities they joined during freshmen orientation. Once they had achieved that, "college" could unfold smoothly. The story was not at all critical of these young people, having been written by an intern who was himself a student at a similar school.
Randall Collins, in The Credential Society, says that the core function of the enormous American higher education system is giving credentials to this lump. What a college degree means for them is that they do not have to compete with the high school graduates for better-paying jobs. Knowing that someone has a B.A. tells us almost nothing about what they learned, if anything, or what kind of people they have become.
As a teacher, I would much rather have an average kid who wants to learn than a smart one with no curiosity. At Centre we do awaken many from their comfortable drift through college. I have to say that small teaching colleges have more success than big research universities in breaking through the shell of intellectual indifference. But even the best college passes some students through undigested and unaffected. But, as Collins notes, at least we kept them off the job market for a few years. And they pay the bills.