This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).

As some will recognize, the title of this essay alludes to one of the founding documents for continuing education in the United States, the Morrill Act of 1862 and its famous general statement of purpose, the aim of the act being “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life.” A broad charter indeed for the future profession of continuing education! And one that, in the more than a century and a half since its articulation, has seen many variations played on both “liberal” and “practical.” Recently, some universities have even begun renaming their continuing education units as centers of “liberal and professional” studies—a somewhat more upscale and contemporary version of “liberal and practical.”

What the relation of liberal to practical is or should be has never been quite clear. Are they opposites? Certainly many seem to think so, especially today when some parents, students, and politicians consider time spent on liberal subjects (often confused with the humanities) to be wasted, at the expense of practical knowledge that would contribute, so the argument goes, more directly and effectively to workforce development and readiness and to national competitiveness. Or are they complements, and if so, of what kind? One historic view is that they are indeed complementary, based on social class: liberal study for the few, the elite, the governors, the professions; practical study for the everyman and everywoman whose prime concern is to make a decent living for themselves and their family. But the Morrill Act language stubbornly couples the two together, intending both kinds of knowledge for the industrial classes and for all the pursuits and professions one can imagine. In what follows I will argue that the Morrill language got it right the first time, and that, going forward, the wisdom of coupling these forms of knowledge will be even more important than ever, both to individuals and to society, and finally, that it should be the aim—and obligation—of continuing educators to advocate for the synergies their interaction produces.

As always, when discussing liberal education, one must begin with what it is not. First, it is not a particular set of subjects—despite the origin of the term in the medieval artes liberalis, which comprehended grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic plus arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Nor is it owned by humanities departments—rather, it can draw freely upon virtually all subject areas. Second, it is not a particular list of books or set of experiences. Reading the Great Books or the Harvard Classics or whatever may contribute to liberal learning but doesn’t necessarily do so. Any liberal instrument may be used in illiberal ways: as the poet John Milton observed, one may even be “a heretic in the truth” if one has not tested and probed and come to one’s own authentic understanding of a truth claimed by others. Third, whatever politically minded critics may think, liberal education is not intended to turn people into political liberals—indeed, it sometimes has the opposite effect. And fourth, although it was historically the province of an elite, in a democratic society it aims not for the creation of a particular class but to enable and to elevate a community of full cultural and civic participation for all.

So if liberal learning is not defined by subject, politics, or class, what is it? What can be positively affirmed? Many have tried their hands at this, usually in the form of a list of some kind. One influential recent example is an article by the historian William Cronon, entitled “Only Connect: The Goals of a Liberal Education” (1998). Cronon’s list of the qualities of a liberally educated mind include the abilities to listen and hear; to read and understand; to talk with anyone; to write clearly, persuasively, and movingly; to solve a wide variety of problems; to respect rigor as a way of seeking truth; and to practice humility, tolerance, and self-criticism—and above all, taking his motto from the novelist E. M. Forster, to connect disparate areas of experience into the richest whole possible. This is a memorable contemporary restatement of the aims of liberal study, but it doesn’t quite replace an older statement, nearly contemporary with the Morrill Act, by the Victorian educator William Cory, of Eton College:

You go to a great school, not for knowledge so much as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual posture, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the habit of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage and mental soberness. Above all, you go to a great school for self-knowledge. (Cory 1861, 7)

Better still, consider the first continuing educator, who was also the first practitioner of liberal learning, Socrates. As depicted in Plato’s dialogues, his typical technique, still the best educational practice and the foundation of all liberal learning, was the bait and switch or, more precisely, the bait and add. When young men come to him, in the Gorgias for example, hoping to learn the techniques of an irresistible skill in argument, one so strong that they can gain their way in any political dispute or confrontation, he teases them into thinking about justice and a just society—the ends for which all power, and especially the power of persuasive argument, should be exercised.

And we continuing educators very much continue and adapt this tradition: we bait our students with institutional prestige but surprise them with amiability and unpretentiousness; we often bait them with modest prices but then surprise them with the need for a greater intellectual effort than they’ve made before; we bait them with certificates and degrees but hope to spark lifelong intellectual curiosities and passions; we bait them with the promise of better jobs and incomes but send them away with the skills and sympathies needed by better citizens of a better community.

Continuing educators have always been people of mixed motives—indeed, if we didn’t have mixed motives, would we have any at all?—and the challenge is to keep the mix as rich and productive as possible, which means, in most cases, adding liberal elements to our often practically oriented programs. One example: several years ago my unit devised a new certificate in financial services to serve a strong local banking and investment sector. We did the due diligence: assessed the need, hired as program director a recent PhD in economics from our university who worked at the Federal Reserve Bank, surveyed similar programs elsewhere, and consulted with local practitioners. Once we had a draft of the program, we invited—to breakfast before the markets opened!—a distinguished group of industry representatives. They liked what they saw, with one exception: we had forgotten professional ethics! As they pointed out, anyone in the industry soon masters the financial techniques, but what is never fully mastered is the daily ethical struggle to balance your personal interests, your firm’s interests, and your client’s interests—which may well conflict. The practical elements of this profession had been obvious, and we had provided for them; but we had forgotten the liberal elements that our adult students most needed if they were to live a fully successful life: doing well but also, within their sphere, doing good.

And so it is in all the many pursuits and professions of the twenty-first century. There are no longer any durably square holes for which to produce square pegs. If we are merely practical, we are likely not going to be really practical enough for an economy in which more jobs every day require and reward flexibility and critical thinking. In the knowledge economy and learning society we frequently invoke, both jobs and careers are more often fluid than fixed. Although my own title has not changed, my job as dean is not the same as it was five or ten years ago, and on a given day, my administrative assistant may make a decision regarding, say, an inquiry or a visitor that is more important than any I will make that day. The old distinction between routine and creative work is also outmoded: thanks to word processing, we’re all typists now—and all decision makers as well.

Indeed, decision and choice in everything we do is the ground note of life in all developed countries and, increasingly, around the world. Where and how we live, what occupations and ambitions we pursue, what personal style and cultural affinities we embrace, what religious belief we practice, if any, what version of family we create or not: all of these and many other choices are ours to make. And beyond the personal, what kinds of societies embodying what sorts of values and aspirations shall we strive for? These are all practical questions. But to make such choices in the best way we need as many liberal and liberating experiences as possible for the arts and habits and self-knowledge that they provide.

Shakespeare was perhaps the first to fully imagine a world, whether tragic or comic, in which one’s choices mattered more than one’s circumstances. This was once, and not so long ago, an existential experience and self-conception available only—outside one of his plays—to the occasional king or queen, hero or heroine. But over several centuries the invention and widespread dissemination of ever more powerful technologies—agricultural, political, medical, educational, informational, and many others—has substantially brought that imagined world into being and made it available, at least in principle, to us all. The resulting long-term social and moral revolution in the democratization of choice was news four hundred years ago, is news today, and will be news for many years to come. Its benefits are of course still very unevenly distributed both in the developed world and across the globe, and too many people still live in the iron grip of circumstances that prevent their full flourishing in a life based on choices and choices well made. But the long arc of this development is both unmistakable and irresistible.

We continuing educators are potentially among the most powerful agents of this revolution. Not the only ones of course: the inventors of the Internet have, for example, played a crucial role in recent years! But as the growing edge of higher education we have a special role to play and one of which we should be conscious and proud and deliberate. Not that spreading a four-centuries-old worldwide democratic revolution in morals and manners is in any of our job descriptions—indeed, most provosts and presidents would be shocked at the opportunity costs involved in even entertaining such a thought. But we have both the opportunity and the obligation, I think, to prepare our students for full participation in it just as we wish for their full participation in the job market and in civic life.

One consequence should be our regularly advocating for the most generous understanding of what sort of education continuing education students—now the most numerous of all students—need, an education both liberal and practical that prepares them to make well the many decisions in their own lives and those of their families and of the many communities—local, national, and international—in which we and they share. Our students too should be satisfied with nothing less than the best.

So yes, let’s help produce a workforce that can adapt to the many challenges that advancing technologies and changes in the nature of work will bring. And let’s help produce the engaged, critically minded citizens who will be needed to control and correct even the best of governments. And finally, let’s prepare our students for the dignity and the deep challenge of making, and then living in, a world largely of their own choosing. For that great enterprise, they’ll need all the knowledge, both liberal and practical, that they can get!



Cory, William. 1861. Eton Reform II. London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts.

Cronon, William. 1998. “Only Connect: The Goals of a Liberal Education.” American Scholar 67(4): 73–80.


This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).