Let me paint caricatures at two extremes.The "liberal educationist" believes in education for its own sake: That only learning anchored in deep thoughts and broad perspectives can be called education; that stoking the thirst for knowledge is sufficient to handle life. To him, thinking of how education can prepare someone for a vocation is somewhere between ludicrous and sacrilegious.
The "instrumental educationist" wants the child to prepare for employment— the earlier the better. After all, the real purpose of education is generating livelihood—everything must be aligned to that. Skills and knowledge relevant to employment must be central to the curriculum. In this view, the ability to think critically, perspectives about society and scientific understanding of nature are somewhere between distractions and unaffordable luxuries.
The power of caricatures lies in their advocacy of a more practical "middle ground": in this case, a "liberal" education that is appropriately instrumental/pragmatic. I shall explore the considerations that can help us develop this "in between" pragmatism, broadly in the context of school education.
First is "valuing" and being "comfortable" with work. The school environment and curriculum have to encourage and be sensitive to this. One simple step, for example, is having children take care of their classroom. The more complex issue is how the curriculum should deal with the "value" of different kinds of work. Since the dice is socially loaded against "manual" work compared with "intellectual" work, whether the curriculum reinforces this bias or attempts to be equitable in its approach becomes important. As with the other dimensions, designing the curriculum well is necessary, but the practice in the classroom is paramount.
Second is "skills". We shouldn't jump to interpret "skills" to mean plumbing and masonry. They must be seen more broadly, not merely as mechanical, narrow, and associated with marginal understanding. They range from motor skills, numeracy, language, working with people, dealing with uncertainty and so on—from the fundamental and general to the specifics. The key is to integrate these in schooling in a graded, age-appropriate manner.
Third is "choice": giving each child the broadest range of options for her future — educationally and vocationally. This is crucial at the age when children are compelled to make choices that cannot later be reversed or changed. Forcing choices at too young an age is unfair and inequitable; at too late an age, it may just be too late. A related issue is ensuring educational continuity and the flexibility of changing tracks later in life—a person trained to be an electrician should be able to pursue an academic career in anthropology as much as electrical engineering.
Fourth, a liberal education aims to foster and enable important abilities: The ability to think analytically and critically, to synthesize, to reflect, to have curiosity, to learn, and so on. These are not just ends in themselves, but also have direct relevance to livelihood and work. The kind of education that does a good job with these abilities deeply enables livelihood, else significantly limits it.
The fifth dimension is that of character, which liberal education is acutely conscious of. Tenacity, willingness to take risk, integrity, initiative, empathy and so on, are all shaped in a complex manner through life. School education has an influence on all this, and so on shaping of character. I don't need to underline the importance of character to livelihood and employment.
Sixth is "relevance". There is no point in millions becoming vocationally educated in rural India to be plumbers, when rural India doesn't have much plumbing to fix. In very simple terms, what students prepare for must exist and have relevance in their social milieu. And this social milieu changes over time.
This directly leads us to the overwhelming importance of the kind of society we are aspiring to build and are actually building in the overall context of education, especially of the "instrumental" kind. The social framework is important for all the dimensions listed above. Let's just take two instances.
If we want equitable development, which (let's say) is distributed, local and sustainable, the "relevant" vocations will be different from what we will find in an industrial, urban-centric development model. If we want to build a diverse society with a deep commitment to the rights of individuals, we will treat the dimension of "choice" differently than if our primary aspiration were economic growth.
This then is the reality of the task – of finding the "in between". It is complex in itself if we just consider the six dimensions, and it is made even more complex in the context of the society that we are building.
Hence, we need to continually discover and invent newer models of liberal education that is adequately pragmatic, or vice versa. We have to borrow from both extremes, in design and in practice. There are no simple, easy, or quick solutions.