ABSTRACT: This paper uses Basil Bernstein’s work on pedagogic discourses to examine a largely neglected facet of the history of vocational education – the liberal studies movement in English further education colleges. Initially, the paper discusses some of the competing conceptions of education, work and society which underpinned the rise and fall of the liberal studies movement – if indeed it can be described as such. The paper then draws on data from interviews with former liberal and general studies lecturers to focus on the ways in which different variants of liberal studies were, over time, implicated in inculcating certain forms of knowledge in vocational learners. Whilst it is acknowledged that liberal and general studies always represented contested territory and that it was highly variable both in terms of content and quality, the paper argues that, at least under certain circumstances, liberal studies provided young working-class people with the opportunity to locate their experiences of vocational learning within a critical framework that is largely absent from further education today. This, it is argued, can be conceptualised as an engagement with what Bernstein described as ‘powerful knowledge’.