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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  • About Time for "Quiet Time"

    • Posted on Jan 11, 2015 by Scott Cawelti
    This morning's Courier column; I do have a personal interest in meditation, since I've been practicing for nearly 40 years--Transcendental Meditation and a hybrid form from Deepak Chopra's workshops, which I attended some years ago.  

    For those who are curious about where to start, there is a lot of material out there--books, YouTube videos and live instruction from real teachers.   Here's  link to the TM site that might be helpful:

    And here's a book that offers a comprehensive overview:
    THE MEDITATION HANDBOOK (1990) by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.  

    I personally really like videos and material from TARA BRACH--YouTube videos and her wonderful book RADICAL ACCEPTANCE.  She includes meditation instruction with every chapter and on her videos.   

    All of these might give you a good start--and a personal teacher is better than books and videos, but will mean more trouble and expense.  It's well worth it, though.   

    In any case, the big deal is what's happening in the San Francisco school system, where meditation seems to be transforming schools in remarkable ways, as I explain below in the Courier column.  

    Nothing succeeds like success, as they say, and I’m here to report two genuine successes.  One is small, the other large, a possible game-changer.  

     The small success involves my own daily meditation practice.  It began over thirty years ago and continues to this day.   

     As a young assistant professor teaching anywhere from 90 to 250 students in three classes, struggling with writing conference papers, grading piles of student essays, meeting with students, attending multiple faculty committees, facing constant pressure to do more and do better, I was stressed.  I mean, stressed out, exhausted, short-tempered, and chronically anxious.   I was staying afloat, but barely.  

     In those days, Cedar Falls had a Transcendental Meditation Center down on third and main, and a couple of friends each recommended I try TM.  

    I did, and it worked.  Within a few days of twice-daily meditation, I began feeling relaxed, then peaceful, then downright blissed out. Well, not quite, but close. 
    And it continued.  No one was more surprised than I.  

     Over the years I’ve attended meditation workshops, modified my practice slightly, and still continue meditating twenty minutes, twice a day. It has made all the difference in my stress level, and I’m still alive, well, and pushing 72.  

     I’m convinced that regular brain-quieting has given me more, and better, years.  That’s what meditation does, by the way:  quiets our always-buzzing brains.   I recommend some form of meditation for anyone who feels overwhelmed with pushes and pulls beyond their control.  If it worked for me, it will work for you. 

     Beyond my own small life, there’s a much larger meditation success story that recently made national news.  

     At Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, they began a program in 2007 of twice-daily “quiet time” breaks for the entire school.  This particular school sits in a rough, even violent, neighborhood.  Attendance, academic scores, and teacher and student retention were dismal. 

     Teachers and students alike hated the chaos of school days.  In other words, the school made no progress toward anything but failure.  

     Now, after over seven years, they can judge Quiet Time’s success. It’s been dramatic, school-wide, and heartening.   This is how David Kirp, a professor of public policy at Berkeley, describes the results: 

     “In the first year of Quiet Time, the number of suspensions fell by 45 percent. Within four years, the suspension rate was among the lowest in the city. Daily attendance rates climbed to 98 percent, well above the citywide average. Grade point averages improved markedly. About 20 percent of graduates are admitted to Lowell High School – before Quiet Time, getting any students into this elite high school was a rarity. Remarkably, in the annual California Healthy Kids Survey, these middle school youngsters recorded the highest happiness levels in San Francisco.”

     Amazing but true.  Kirp continues:  

     “On the California Achievement Test, twice as many students in Quiet Time schools have become proficient in English, compared with students in similar schools where the program doesn’t exist, and the gap is even bigger in math. Teachers report they’re less emotionally exhausted and more resilient.”

     Incidentally, students are not forced to practice TM.  They can simply close their eyes, daydream, nap—as long as they’re quiet during those two 15-minute periods. Parents must give permission if they want their child to learn the meditation technique. 

     I can hear objections:  wasting valuable school time, returning to hippie-dom, 
    imposing a religious practice in a state school.  All of these seem to be satisfactorily answered, since the program’s success with the parents’ permission for seven years speaks for itself. 

     Best of all, Quiet Time costs virtually nothing, and it affects whole schools so positively (based on real data) that it’s at least worth a look. 

     My own small success story offers unqualified support.  

     Much more power to them.  

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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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