[T]he standards of the two kinds of education [liberal and practical] are fundamentally different and fundamentally opposed. The standard of liberal education is based upon definitions of excellence in the various disciplines. These definitions are in turn based upon example. One learns to order one’s thoughts and to speak and write coherently by studying exemplary thinkers, speakers, and writers of the past. One studies The Divine Comedy and the Pythagorean theorem not to acquire something to be exchanged for something else, but to understand the orders and the kinds of thought and to furnish the mind with subjects and examples. Because the standards are rooted in examples, they do not change.
The standard of practical education, on the other hand, is based upon the question of what will work, and becasue the practical is by definition of the curriculum set aside from issues of value, the question tends to be resolved in the most shallow and immediate fashion: what is practical is what makes money; what is most practical is what makes the most money. Practical education is an ‘investment,’ something acquired to be exchanged for something else—a ‘good’ job, money, prestige. It is oriented entirely toward the future, toward what will work in the ‘changing world’ in which the student is supposedly being prepared to ‘compete.’ the standard of practicality, as used, is inherently a degenerative standard. There is nothing to correct it except suppositions about what the world will be like and what the student will therefore need to know. Because the future is by definition unknown, one person’s supposition about the future tends to be as good, or as forceful, as another’s. And so the standard of practicality tends to revise itself downward to meet, not the needs, but the desires of the student who, for instance, does not want to learn a science because he intends to pursue a career in which he does not think a knowledge of science will be necessary.
It could be said that a liberal education has the nature of a bequest, in that it looks upon the student as the potential heir of a cultural birthright, whereas a practical education has the nature of a commodity to be exchanges for position, status, wealth, etc., in the future.”—Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America