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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  • 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. 










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