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Local Editorials

Liberal Arts

At first glance I thought the email was a crank, some weirdo in a foreign country wanting money. The grammar was terrible, there were misspellings, and typos galore.  I just about hit the delete button. Then I realized the email was from an acquaintance, a highly educated engineer. I had to reread the email several times to decipher what he wanted.  

As a linguistics professor in college once told me, “You can have the greatest idea in the world, but if you can’t communicate, it’s worthless.”

Education in liberal arts (literature, language, art, music, philosophy, history, math, psychology, science), because of the lack of job opportunities, have taken a hit lately.  I take personal affront to that, especially after reading the above email. My degree is in English, and I’m proud of it. Contrary to what some career advisers are advising today, because of our high-tech digitized world, I would still recommend a liberal arts education, the cost of college education and employment opportunities be danged.

Let’s get one thing straight — I have never believed that the purpose of education was to secure a good job. Call me naive, but education for the sake of education is what I believed in. Still do. This philosophy has served me well.

When I graduated with my degree in English (non-teaching) from Iowa State University in 1975, strapped with guaranteed student loans totaling $14,000 (adjusted for inflation, that’s about the average for graduates today), and knowing full well that there were few jobs for a graduate with my degree, I went to work in a factory. Low and behold, guess what happened? I began getting promotions. Why? Because of my communication skills, honed through a liberal arts education. Factory management loved my interoffice memos, problem solving ability and report writing. Various positions I held within the factory environment: machine operator, machinist, supervisor, corporate policy writer, vendor certification, safety director, EEO Officer, and human resources administrator. By the way, the president of this very successful, high-tech company, had a degree in history.

That was career number one.

Career number two has been insurance sales. Once again, it was my communication skills (and work ethic) that made this a success. I typically started each day, not by memorizing sales pitches, but by reading — anything from fiction, to the Bible, to self-help books, to history: education for the sake of education. Knowledge is power.

Now, at the age of 66, and in semi-retirement, I’m not sure I could be enjoying life any more than I am right now. I write a weekly newspaper column that’s in some twenty-odd newspapers, have a photography studio, and have a blast making sculptures out of junk — all very liberal artsy.  

My son and daughter both have great careers with their degrees in liberal arts. One of my friends along the way, with his graduate degree in medieval literature, was head of an IT department. No he didn’t write code, but he could sure communicate.

In our fast-paced world of high technology and crisscrossing crises (immigration, scandals in the IRS and VA, Iraq, Benghazi, global warming, healthcare, flight 370, Sgt. Bergdahl, drones, to name a few), you’d darn better hope (trust me on this one) that we have someone who can tell us the history of the subject and, most importantly, be able to communicate it, i.e. someone with a liberal arts education.

Speaking of art, I’m going to be the featured artist for the month of July at the Ft. Madison Area Art Association. There will be a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, July 11, in Ft. Madison. I will have my sculptures and photography on display — drop in and give me a story idea. Life is fun, thanks to a liberal arts education.  

Have a good story? Call or text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at (319) 217-0526, email him at, or visit his website at Curt also reads his columns on

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