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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  • 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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  • What Makes a Great Community--Cedar Falls' School Bond Election

    • Posted on Sep 01, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

    This appeared in yesterday's (8-31) WCF Courier.   Though I don't expect it to change any made-up minds, it might help a few people jump off the fence--in favor, I hope. 

    I REALLY hope it passes on Sept. 9, not only because it's right for CF Public Schools, but because I'm out $365 on Sept. 10 if it fails.   Pretty dumb idea, but I wrote it and meant it.  (See final paragraphs below.) 

    Over the years I’ve called several places home, meaning put down roots for at least a year and stayed.   I remember them all fondly, mostly.   

    Holstein, in western Iowa, wasn’t much fun for a single guy, and I left town as often as possible from 1965-6.  Regensburg, Germany, was remarkable for its long history and river, the Danube, that waltzed through it.   Orebro, Sweden, meant wonderful neighbors, long walks in the Swedish woods, and some of the best pastries on the planet.  

    Charleston, South Carolina, to where we retreat, combines several of these, making it my second favored city. 

    Then there’s my first, Cedar Falls.  It doesn’t have woodsy walks of Orebro, or the history of Europe and Charleston, but it does have strong advantages that attract and keep folks who come for a year and stay for decades.

    More than a few old friends who left have told me that if they ever find suitable work in the Cedar Valley, they’d move back in a heartbeat, winters be damned. 

    So what makes Cedar Falls such an inviting and vibrant community?  UNI, GBPAC, sports venues, bike trails, Hearst and Waterloo Art Centers—yes, yes.    

    And near the top:  Public schools.  It has some of the best-run and best-regarded schools in the state, and good schools attract families more than most other community features.  

    I’ll admit to a slight bias, since I’m a product of CF Public schools, graduating from CF High when it still had that new-school smell, in 1961. 

    Looking back, I received a first-rate education, with a balance of extra-curriculars and academics, memorable events and excellent teachers.    I didn’t think so at the time, but it allowed enough freedom to experiment, yet enough structure to keep me challenged and engaged.

    A great school will do that, and from all I’ve heard, CF schools carry on that tradition, though not without problems.  Our local schools have become overcrowded and just plain outdated.  CF High was built sixty years ago, and has been remodeled, fixed, and refurbished pretty much to the limit.  

    It’s time for an update, and that means replacing.  If this doesn’t happen, one of the prime reasons Cedar Falls becomes a beloved hometown will falter.  

    I’ve only heard two objections:  Cost and the choice of location, off West 27th St.     

    What will it cost the typical Cedar Falls homeowner?  About a dollar a day, say proponents of the upcoming bond referendum.  This is the first school referendum, by the way, since 1976, when voters approved $940,000 for swimming pools at Holmes and Peet Junior Highs. (Google “CF schools bond information.”)

    A buck a day? That’s less than a cup of coffee, and certainly less than the treats we grab for snacks.  Given what a daily dollar buys, it’s the best spent buck in the wallet.  

    Remember too that though CF Schools rank 17th in enrollment in Iowa, they’re 25th in terms of tax levy.  Clearly, an upgrade is in order.  

     As to location, the whole city’s moving west, and proximity to UNI makes sense, given the amount of interaction between UNI and CF High.  Remember this bond issue will also pay for additions to and remodel North Cedar Elementary, add to and remodel Orchard Hill Elementary school, and build a new elementary school in addition to a new high school.   It’s a city-wide shift to a mid-21st century educational system.  

     I believe strongly enough in keeping CF schools alive and growing that if the Sept. 9 referendum fails, I promise to donate $365 anyway—my buck a day for 2014—to the CF School district on Sept. 10. 

     It’s the least I can do, given what our local schools do for all of us. 

    What’s the least you can do?  Vote yes on Sept. 9.



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