Originally, and literally, an education which liberates the pupil or student from errors in their thinking by encouraging the acquisition of genuine knowledge through a process of rational thought and reflection. The liberal knowledge thus gained is seen as quite distinct from the types of learning which are acquired through practice or whose purpose is to equip the learner with the ability to carry out particular tasks or activities. This distinction, which draws on Plato's theories of education and the acquisition of knowledge, may be expressed in today's terms as the difference between the acquisition of ‘knowledge for its own sake’ and the acquisition of instrumental knowledge designed for a specific end such as skills for employment. A liberal education, then, is one which is not designed to equip the learner for a job or the means to earn a living, but one which presents education as a ‘good’ in itself. The current differentiation in status between academic and vocational provision and qualifications, sometimes referred to as the ‘academic–vocational divide’, has its roots in this historical idea that the most valuable and genuine knowledge is liberal—or liberating—knowledge, gained purely for its own sake. The educational ideal formed the basis of school and university provision for the sons of ‘gentry’ in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The curriculum was made up largely of Latin and ancient Greek, its only purpose being to produce ‘gentlemen of culture’. A curriculum which diverged from this liberal model, for example by introducing an element of instrumentalism, such as science or modern languages, which might better equip the learner with skills needed to earn a living, was considered suitable only for classes below the level of gentry, whose circumstances meant they might have to take paid employment. This class distinction between the provision of liberal and instrumental knowledge reinforced the idea that a liberal education was inherently of higher status. Instrumental, or useful, knowledge became closely associated with ‘trade’ and the artisan classes and with narrowness of purpose, while liberal education maintained its elite status and later became associated with a broad and life‐enhancing curriculum and with the principles of learner‐centred education which aims to support the development of individual potential. This distinction was illustrated clearly in the 1960s and 1970s by the provision of an additional and eponymous liberal studies curriculum for students on skills training courses in technical colleges (now colleges of further education), designed to broaden their minds and enhance their experience of learning.
A liberal education is associated with the acquisition of knowledge which is theoretical rather than practical, reflective rather than instrumental, and valued for its own sake rather than acquired for some use. It is often understood today to be synonymous with a general education or academic education, inasmuch as these terms, too, are used to express the opposite of ‘vocational’ in the context of educational provision. It is, however, as much an ideal or a philosophical construct as it is a type of curriculum. To describe a model of education as ‘liberal’ is not only to state something about its purpose and curriculum content, but is also implicitly, and unavoidably, to ascribe a value to it.