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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  • In Praise of Critical Thinking

    • Posted on Oct 26, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

    Here's today's Courier Column on critical thinking--not exactly an endorsement of a candidate, but I do find that Republicans employ more fallacious thinking and use less evidence for their assertions, at least these days.  

    Critical thinking is like hydrating—everyone says we should do it, but most of us walk around thirsty.  We drink too little water and gulp too many junk liquids, leaving us feeling parched.   Cool, clear water to the rescue.   

    So too with critical thinking, though that activity requires more than finding a faucet.  It’s requires finding an unused brain.  

    Over the years I’ve tried to both teach and practice critical thinking, and though it’s made me cynical and skeptical, I strive to feel mentally hydrated.

    Here’s what works for me:

                1. Always get other opinions.   As conservatives’ beloved hero Ronald Reagan put it “Trust, but verify.”   Take any assertion and triple-check other sources for further proof.  Seems like common sense, but too many of us take one assertion from one source as truth.

    Most assertions from most political commercials cannot be verified, nor can “facts” based on partisan sources, such as “Republicans will bring a balanced budget to government” since that’s demonstrably false.

    Verifiable fact:  the last Republican who balanced the federal budget was Eisenhower, in the 1950s.  All other Republican presidents raised the federal debt—especially the last Bush, who doubled it.  That’s a half-century without balanced budgeting, and some years Republicans controlled both houses. 

     All five budget surpluses during the last forty years occurred under Democratic Presidents: 1969, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001.  (See


                2.  Watch for fallacies, especially non-sequiturs and “post hoc” thinking.

    A non sequitur is Latin for “it doesn’t follow.”   Ernst, to use a familiar example, asserts that Braley was a bad neighbor because he investigated whether his Holiday Lake neighbors had a legal right to raise chickens.  He never sued, as Ernst falsely asserted.  (   

    The fallacy?  Braley’s reasonable inquiry about a neighborhood association policy makes him less qualified to serve in the U.S. Senate.  It’s a non sequitur, as are most such personal attacks. 

    Personal attacks don’t connect to political leadership qualities.  A great leader can be a personal mess, as any number of great leaders’ lives reveal.  (Examples?  Too numerous to mention.)

    The “post hoc” fallacy, which I see constantly, tries to make a causal connection where there is none.  Because Braley hasn’t shown up for meetings, he’s not an effective representative, implies Ernst.  Wrong, and a causal fallacy.  

    Helping craft important legislation that gets passed is what causes great leaders to emerge.  Just attending meetings causes nothing.  

    3.  Examine premises.  Here’s the hardest challenge because bias seeps in everywhere.   You might have noticed a slight bias in my explanations above; it’s inevitable, since Republicans seem fact-challenged these days more than Democrats.

    “Bias” means, basically, you begin with certain premises and make all further assertions fit those premises, ignoring opposing evidence.

    If you begin with a GOP platform that’s anti-government, then everything else follows—their anti- “socialist” positions, their inability to compromise with Democrats, (who believe in government as an essential component of our lives) their threats to defund everything from environmental safeguards to education, federally mandated health care, their insistence that tax cuts mean job creation.  

    They only support government when it denies abortion rights or opposes gay marriage—in citizens’ private lives, that is.

    If you truly buy into that anti-government basic premise, you probably are impervious to any arguments that question it.  

    Granted, Democrats can suffer from too much faith in government, and need to admit that not all government is good government.

    So, always and forever examine your own biases and premises—that’s what critical thinkers do. Prepare to be frustrated as you clarify what’s really true, and be prepared to admit you’re wrong.  Everyone is off-base at times; few acknowledge it.   

    It’s downright hard work.  It’s also healthy and refreshing, like a cool class of water on a hot day.  

     And your brain will stay hydrated.  


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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.   



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