Liberal education may be the key to keeping students competitive in the 21st century and revitalizing the U.S. economy, said Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton at a University of Wisconsin System conference Friday.

Lawton stressed the importance of promoting liberal education in preparing students to adapt to the rapidly changing economic environment.

“Educational slowdown is the greatest problem facing our nation,” Lawton said.

“For the first time, young workers will be less qualified than the older workers they are replacing.”

As a promoter of Wisconsin’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise campaign, Lawton said the American quality of education has declined not only relative to the rest of the world but also in absolute terms.

According to Clifton Conrad, professor of higher education and educational leadership at the University of Wisconsin, a changing economy both in Wisconsin and the United States requires a liberal arts education that promotes well-rounded thinking skills and experience.

“People will have to adapt to at least 10 to 15 jobs over the course of a lifetime,” Clifton said.

A liberal education will help students become “mentally agile” and qualified to handle the increasingly difficult economic landscape, according to Conrad.

“We need people who are not simply learned, but who are learners, meaning they have higher order thinking skill and creativity,” Conrad said. “These skills will help them identify and solve the ever-changing challenges and problems in this rapidly changing world.”

According to Conrad, empirical knowledge does not adequately prepare students for the unforeseen challenges of the changing environment of the 21st century.

Conrad proposed a more hands-on approach to instilling thinking skills, such as synthesis and analysis, cultivation of interpersonal communication and reasoning skills.

“Instead of sitting in class, have [students] engage actively in creative and discerning problem-solving and identifying meaningful problems.” Conrad said. “We need imagination instead of empirical knowledge acquisition.”

Conrad noted the term “liberal education” is ambiguous, and both students and the general population often don’t understand what this type of education consists of.

“The term liberal education is so general it doesn’t mean anything anymore,” Conrad said.

Students described their perceptions of a liberal education as more diverse, having greater depth and a broader reach than conventional, specifically-oriented education.

“I think of [liberal educations] as a more open and diverse education than the typical learning methods,” UW sophomore Julia Currie said.

In her speech, Lawton also noted the importance of both the quality of education and the quality of life in Wisconsin to curb the brain drain, which Lawton said is the exodus of Wisconsin-educated workers to Chicago and Minneapolis.

“The chair of the Higher Education Committee spoke about how budget constraints may force us now to cut down on certain UW campuses,” Lawton said. “And I just want to say — over my dead body.”