Scott Cawelti

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.

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  • HAPPY BARTOLOME DE LA CASAS DAY--the Oskar Schindler of Columbus's Time

    • Posted on Oct 13, 2014 by Scott Cawelti
    Today, October 13,  is Columbus Day, the day we celebrate the enslavement and subjugation of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas--or rather, the start thereof, by 
    one Christopher Columbus.  

    Columbus is a hero to the subjugators, namely we Europeans who took over, but
    there's another side that we shouldn't forget. 

    That's why we should also celebrate Bartolome de La Casas, a Spanish priest who arrived not long after Columbus, and was horrified by how the natives were wanton slaughtered and treated essentially as animals, and enslaved at will.  Here's a bit 
    of information on him from Wikipedia, and I've boldfaced key ideas:  

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

    Bartolomé de las CasasO.P. (c. 1484-1566), was a 16th-century Spanish historian, social reformer and Dominican friar. He became the first resident Bishop of Chiapas, and the first officially appointed "Protector of the Indians". His extensive writings, the most famous being A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and Historia de Las Indias, chronicle the first decades of colonization of the West Indies and focus particularly on the atrocities committed by the colonizers against the indigenous peoples.

    Arriving as one of the first European settlers in the Americas, he participated in, and was eventually compelled to oppose, the atrocities committed against the Native Americans by the Spanish colonists.
    In 1515, he reformed his views, gave up his Indian slaves and encomienda, and advocated, before King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, on behalf of rights for the natives.

    In his early writings, he advocated the use of African slaves instead of Natives in the West-Indian colonies; consequently, criticisms have been leveled at him as being partly responsible for the beginning of the Transatlantic slave trade. Later in life, he retracted those early views as he came to see all forms of slavery as equally wrong.  In 1522, he attempted to launch a new kind of peaceful colonialism on the coast of Venezuela, but this venture failed causing Las Casas to enter the Dominican Order and become a friar, leaving the public scene for a decade.

    He then traveled to Central America undertaking peaceful evangelization among the Maya of Guatemala and participated in debates among the Mexican churchmen about how best to bring the natives to the Christian faith. Traveling back to Spain to recruit more missionaries, he continued lobbying for the abolition of the encomienda, gaining an important victory by the passing of the New Laws in 1542.

    He was appointed Bishop of Chiapas, but served only for a short time before he was forced to return to Spain because of resistance to the New Laws by the encomenderos, and conflicts with Spanish settlers because of his pro-Indian policies and activist religious stances. The remainder of his life was spent at the Spanish court where he held great influence over Indies-related issues. In 1550, he participated in the Valladolid debate in which Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda argued that the Indians were less than human and required Spanish masters in order to become civilized. Las Casas maintained that they were fully human and that forcefully subjugating them was unjustifiable. 

    Bartolomé de las Casas spent 50 years of his life actively fighting slavery and the violent colonial abuse of indigenous peoples, especially by trying to convince the Spanish court to adopt a more humane policy of colonization. And although he failed to save the indigenous peoples of the Western Indies, his efforts resulted in several improvements in the legal status of the natives, and in an increased colonial focus on the ethics of colonialism.


    Las Casas is often seen as one of the first advocates for universal human rights.

    ++++++++
    Las Casas, to me, is the Oscar Schindler of Columbus's time, and deserves recognition as a hero.  The least we can do is mention him in connection with Columbus Day, since he did the right thing centuries before anyone knew it was the right thing.   

     

     

    Go comment!
    Posted in
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  • Discussing Rights and Wrongs

    • Posted on Sep 28, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

    Who’s right?  Who’s wrong? Why?   Big questions.

    This semester I’m co-teaching a UNI class where we discuss morality and ethics, meaning those questions and all they imply.   

    A small group of honors students joins Jerry Soneson and me for 75 minutes twice a week to discuss rights and wrongs.  We examine characters in various literary works and films who face moral choices.  In their stories, they struggle with moral choices, and we analyze their actions.  

     By discussing morality within nonfictional and fictional stories we learn about our own choices, and learn to make better decisions. That’s our theory, anyway.

    These are smart, sensitive, articulate, and engaged students, who speak their minds with varying degrees of passion and clarity.  The classes have mostly flown by, and each session has left me with a buzzing brain.  That’s the sign of a good discussion.

    We’ve discussed Socrates’ choice to take poison rather than escape his death sentence.  Then in Dead Poet’s Society, we struggled with the young actor’s suicide. We moved to Huck Finn’s decision to help his friend Jim escape slavery, even though Huck knows he’s breaking the law.  And we wondered about “Rita’s” choice to become university educated against her husband’s wishes in Educating Rita.  A divorce ensues. 

    The  more we analyze and discuss morality, the more challenging it becomes.  Here are a few issues we’ve confronted:

    • The reigning politicians in 4th century (B.C.) Greece condemn Socrates to death seemingly for teaching young people that no one really knows anything of importance with final certainty.  It’s an unjust sentence, but Socrates obeys it.  Should he?  He has a chance to escape but turns it down.  We admire him now, but many of Socrates’ friends thought he should escape.  Did he do the right thing? 
    • Huck Finn says, “All right, I’ll GO to hell!” meaning he knows he’s committing a crime and a sin by helping a fugitive slave, yet his friendship and loyalty to Jim are stronger than human and divine laws against helping slaves.  So how do we know the right thing path when our entire culture, including our religion, say it’s wrong, as Huck’s pre-civil war Southern culture told Huck?
    • Who’s responsible when someone kills themselves?  This came up throughout the discussion of Dead Poet’s Society, and the answers ranged from solely the self-killer to the repressive society and school combined with an authoritarian father.  Who’s right?  What’s behind a choice to take one’s own life?                                                                                        

    More such questions arise every class, with other hard dilemmas coming under scrutiny.  Does everything happen for a reason, as Dr. Pangloss asserts in Candide?  Or are we all subject to bouts of good and bad luck?   Stuff just happens?

    Is there an  absolute to which we should all turn for all moral questions? Or are answers to moral questions relative, such as murdering a killer to save innocent lives?  

    And a major question nags at me.   Is the examined life worth living if all you get are more questions?  Wouldn’t it be more fun to just enjoy life and leave moral dilemmas to philosophers who can’t help themselves?  Or as the poet says, “When ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.” 

    Though the course has raised all these issues and more, some common themes and ideas are emerging: 

    • Happiness isn’t found by seeking it; rather, it’s a by-product of a productive and engaged life, which involves awareness of  moral choices. 
    • Education, when it works, transforms students into seekers, people who know how to evaluate morality, and remain willing to change when needed.  You never stop examining your actions.  
    • Without this element of questioning, education is little more than busywork, filling in blanks and gaining a credential for a better job. 

    I submit, this class raises those questions which all forms of education should raise.  Wrestling with them transforms students into critical, engaged thinkers.

    So far, anyway. 

     

                 

     

                 

     

     

     

     

     

    Go comment!
    Posted in
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    • Education
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
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