Cedar Valley Chronicles

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.

Categories

Archives

Cedar Valley Chronicles Photo
Cedar Valley Chronicles Header

“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

-Saul Shapiro, Former Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Editor
Read Shapiro's entire introduction.

  • That Removed Book about Indians

    • Posted on Apr 19, 2015 by Scott Cawelti
    This morning's Courier column--Sunday, April 19.  It's beyond local interest, I think.  Also it's not  about censorship so much as freedom for teachers to use their best professional judgment without fear of one administrator's judgment.   That's what seems to have happened in the Waterloo Public Schools--against their own policy.    

    I took the time to read the "young adult" novel,  "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," by Sherman Alexie, and found it unalterably appropriate for middle school students.  The administrator asserted it was "unalterably inappropriate," so we have a slight difference of opinion. 

    +++++++++++++++++++++++

    I’d like to recommend a book for young adults.  I mean a novel that’s written for young adults--teenagers in middle and high school, but I’d like to recommend it for grownups too. 

    It’s Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” published in 2007, and he’s relating his life as a young teenager on a Washington State reservation.  He has since become a best-selling author, poet and screenplay writer. 

    I enjoyed it immensely, far more than expected. More than that, I learned from it, and still ponder what it reveals about Native Americans, their hopelessness, their alcoholism, how much they hate themselves.  And how a lucky few leave despair and hopelessness behind.      

     His first Young Adult novel, “Diary” won the National Book Award, and made multiple bestseller lists.  The NY Times reviewer extolled its memorable prose and painful honesty, calling it Alexie’s best work. 

     So why did this old grownup seek out an 8-year old Young Adult novel?  Because it was “censored,” of course.   Banned books should be first on everyone’s “to read” list, since they’re sure to challenge and awaken readers. 
    Isn’t that what reading is for?   

     Last Sunday’s Courier editorial on “Diary” rightly criticized how one administrator’s decision that “Diary” was “inarguably inappropriate” for middle school students led to its being pulled from middle school classrooms.     
    Inarguably inappropriate?  

    On the contrary, teachers asserted, there was plenty to argue about, given the quality and power of the novel.  That’s why they have a policy that sets up a committee to read and discuss controversial books when parents or students object.  Put bluntly, the administration violated its own stated policy.  
    Apart from that, it’s a bonehead decision because these are exactly the kind of books that should be discussed in a class. 

     I read “Diary” carefully for what might offend parents or students, and found four
    potentially inappropriate features. Remember, the whole novel is written from a 14-year old Native American boy’s perspective as he discovers who he really is over the course of a school year.  “Arnold Spirit,” the character, experiences:  

    • Cursing, including the f-bomb, but sparingly, unlike in dozens of widely available movies. 

    • An ugly racist joke that causes the narrator to punch the jokester’s nose.

    • blasphemy in the form of one cartoon (the narrator creates dozens of cartoons to illustrate his dilemmas).  

    • sexuality, but only in the form of adolescent fantasies, which include masturbation. 

     Now, here’s what’s strange.  Those who advocate pulling it unanimously agree that “Diary” is entirely appropriate for high school students—just not for younger teenagers.  

     So during those three middle school years, younger teenagers are somehow supposed to learn about cursing, sexuality, blasphemy, and racist jokes so they can deal with them when they turn, say, 16? 

     How, I ask?  From older kids?  From hearing three more years of cursing and sex talk from their peers? 

     What’s the best way for younger teenagers to explore adult conflicts?  By reading and discussing them them with classmates and a teacher, in a middle school class. That’s how it’s supposed to work.   

     All of the potentially offensive aspects of Alexis’s novel arise from the narrator’s life and observations as he struggles with alcoholic parents, a crazy sister, bullying, and his tribe’s history as outcasts in their own land.   

    The narrator struggles with frustration, despair, and rage at times.  Everything he does and says that’s offensive makes sense, given his life and outlook as a deeply frustrated, dirt-poor reservation Native American.    

     So Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” deserves to be read, discussed, and celebrated by teenagers and teachers alike as a memorable reflection on growing up poor and outcast.   

     Shame on those who would interfere with that.  
    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Hot Button Issues
    • Education
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
    • Censorship
  • Conservatives' Anti-Science Attitude

    • Posted on Mar 22, 2015 by Scott Cawelti
    Here's this morning's (Sun. 3-22) Courier column. It's a bit more of a polemic than I usually write, but I'm getting weary of fantasy-based beliefs that seem pervasive.

    By "conservative," I don't necessarily mean Republicans, but anyone who decides that their beliefs are absolute and certain, and defends them vociferously against the facts.   
    They "conserve" their beliefs, based on certainty.  

    Even scientists fall victim to this temptation, as Johann Hari points out in his "Chasing the Scream" book on our failed "war" on drugs.  


    ++++++++++++
    Conservatives’ rampant anti-science attitude began, I think, when curious and smart souls (aka scientists) began gathering data that shook long-established beliefs.  

    It’s certainly not new.  

     Galileo and Darwin, in 1610 and 1859 respectively, shifted the very ground upon which most people’s beliefs were anchored.  The earth moves around the sun?  Species appear and disappear depending on whether they adapt?  All of nature constantly changes, including humans?  Say it ain’t so, people said, and still say, though thankfully not a majority worldwide any more.  

     Except hard-right conservatives, who seem intent on maintaining their own ignorances. In spite of mountains of data, conservatives refuse to believe what science plainly reveals.   What they do instead: Ignore, deny, or re-interpret data to fit their delusional beliefs, roughly in that order. 

    Scientists search for facts grounded in research using a method which yields 
    truths that can be replicated and therefore used worldwide for all manner of applications and theories.   This “scientific method” deserves respect partly because it works, and partly because anyone with tools and knowledge can use it to make further discoveries, and have now for centuries.  

     Though hardly perfect, it’s the best means we have of finding reliable and valid facts.  We ignore and deny it at our peril.  

     That’s the malady of all true believers:  Certainty.  Scientists, if they stay true to their calling, admit new facts that change their world view.  

     A case in point:  the drug “war” that has ruined millions of lives world-wide.  Two recent books make a powerful case against current anti-drug policies.  “Chasing the Scream,” by Johann Hari, and “High Price,” by Carl Hart, reveal that hysteria rules this country’s attitude toward addictive substances, not science. 

     America’s Prohibition (1920-1933) was the first result, which developed into a full-blown national disaster.  Gangsters, bootlegging, mob killings, turf wars, and an enormous uptick in prison populations ruled that era.   

     As Mark Thornton (Professor of Economics at Auburn University) notes: 
    “Although consumption of alcohol fell at the beginning of Prohibition, it subsequently increased. Alcohol became more dangerous to consume; crime increased and became "organized"; the court and prison systems were stretched to the breaking point; and corruption of public officials was rampant.”

     If that sounds familiar it should.  Our current drug policies have become a full-blown national disaster as well. Drug lords, smuggling, gang killings, turf wars, and an enormous uptick in prison populations rule our era. 
    Prohibition is not working, and never has.  

     The most compelling account comes from Hari’s “Chasing the Scream” book, a highly readable account of how we’ve failed to either eradicate or control addictive drugs.  Hari reveals how politicians have ignored or dismissed solid research that points toward an entirely different approach. 

    The source of addiction is only partially chemical “hooks.” In fact, addictions exist with no chemical hooks at all—take gambling, for one example.  Feeling alone, outcast, berated, and punished does more to create addictive behavior than actual drug chemistry.   
     
    So what do we do to addicts?  We abuse, punish, imprison, and berate them. 

    We need a national awakening on drug policy, and it won’t come from conservatives.   

     A solution that has already worked once in this country needs to be brought back:  End prohibition.  When alcohol prohibition ended, so did the crimes committed because of prohibition. 

     The same would happen, both Hari and Hart insist, if we ended prohibition of banned substances. This doesn’t necessarily mean legalization, but it could mean de-criminalization.  It has begun with both Colorado and Oregon’s easing of marijuana restrictions.   That should continue nationwide.   

     It won’t come easily or quickly, but it has to come.   Science will help show the way, and a few enlightened conservatives might step up to help.  

     One can always hope.   

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Conservatives/Liberals
    • alcohol
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
Contact Scott Header
Contact Scott Photo
Brothers Blood Book
James Hearst
Landscape Iowa CD