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What is Liberal Arts Education and Why Do We Need it Today?

The world needs an education that works. Three alumni working in three different sectors - business, non-profit, and higher education - discuss how a liberal arts education has diversified and enhanced their work experiences.

On Wednesday, February 10th, Beloit College Economics Department alumni gathered for the 35th Annual Econ Day celebration. The event began with a panel of three Beloit College alumni: Lea Krohn’05, vice president of Partner Programs at Stand Together, Virgil Storr’96, associate professor of economics at George Mason University, and Bob Atwell’80, founding CEO of Nicolet National Bank. The panel focused on “What is liberal education and why do we need it today?” and was moderated by Charles Westerberg’94, professor of sociology at Beloit.

If you look up the definition of liberal education, you’ll find several different explanations. An education that emphasizes breadth, requiring students to take courses across the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts. Or, an education that values education for its own sake – in contrast to vocational training. These fall short. All three panelists agreed that critical thinking is a key skill developed through a liberal education. Krohn discussed being able to understand people with different viewpoints, negotiate competing information, and come to your own conclusion – “What do I believe?” Atwell pointed out that critical thinking has been hugely important in his career in banking, to be able “to evaluate received wisdom and identify what might be wrong.”

Elaborating on how their liberal education at Beloit College has served them in their careers, Storr noted that in the world of ideas, all the interesting research is on the boundaries between disciplines, so having breadth (especially in your undergraduate education) is an advantage. He also quoted F.A. Hayek, “nobody can be a great economist who is only an economist – and I am even tempted to add that the economist who is only an economist is likely to become a nuisance if not a positive danger” (Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, 1967). Krohn added that this ability to think cross-functionally and really understand how an organization works is what has launched her into so many different roles. Krohn is not afraid of change and likes a challenge.

Finally, identifying the various sectors represented – nonprofit (Krohn), higher education (Storr), for-profit (Atwell) – why does your sector need liberal education? Atwell challenged, why do we – society – need it today? This nation is in crisis: economically, racially, medically. We cannot prosper if we keep ripping each other apart. We have to ask ourselves, why are we together? How do we need each other? What obligations do we have to one another? How do things come to be known as true or untrue? In sum, we need to understand diverse viewpoints, engage in critical thinking, and acknowledge each other’s shared humanity. Now that’s liberal education in practice.

February 22, 2021

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