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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  • That Removed Book about Indians

    • Posted on Apr 19, 2015 by Scott Cawelti
    This morning's Courier column--Sunday, April 19.  It's beyond local interest, I think.  Also it's not  about censorship so much as freedom for teachers to use their best professional judgment without fear of one administrator's judgment.   That's what seems to have happened in the Waterloo Public Schools--against their own policy.    

    I took the time to read the "young adult" novel,  "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," by Sherman Alexie, and found it unalterably appropriate for middle school students.  The administrator asserted it was "unalterably inappropriate," so we have a slight difference of opinion. 

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    I’d like to recommend a book for young adults.  I mean a novel that’s written for young adults--teenagers in middle and high school, but I’d like to recommend it for grownups too. 

    It’s Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” published in 2007, and he’s relating his life as a young teenager on a Washington State reservation.  He has since become a best-selling author, poet and screenplay writer. 

    I enjoyed it immensely, far more than expected. More than that, I learned from it, and still ponder what it reveals about Native Americans, their hopelessness, their alcoholism, how much they hate themselves.  And how a lucky few leave despair and hopelessness behind.      

     His first Young Adult novel, “Diary” won the National Book Award, and made multiple bestseller lists.  The NY Times reviewer extolled its memorable prose and painful honesty, calling it Alexie’s best work. 

     So why did this old grownup seek out an 8-year old Young Adult novel?  Because it was “censored,” of course.   Banned books should be first on everyone’s “to read” list, since they’re sure to challenge and awaken readers. 
    Isn’t that what reading is for?   

     Last Sunday’s Courier editorial on “Diary” rightly criticized how one administrator’s decision that “Diary” was “inarguably inappropriate” for middle school students led to its being pulled from middle school classrooms.     
    Inarguably inappropriate?  

    On the contrary, teachers asserted, there was plenty to argue about, given the quality and power of the novel.  That’s why they have a policy that sets up a committee to read and discuss controversial books when parents or students object.  Put bluntly, the administration violated its own stated policy.  
    Apart from that, it’s a bonehead decision because these are exactly the kind of books that should be discussed in a class. 

     I read “Diary” carefully for what might offend parents or students, and found four
    potentially inappropriate features. Remember, the whole novel is written from a 14-year old Native American boy’s perspective as he discovers who he really is over the course of a school year.  “Arnold Spirit,” the character, experiences:  

    • Cursing, including the f-bomb, but sparingly, unlike in dozens of widely available movies. 

    • An ugly racist joke that causes the narrator to punch the jokester’s nose.

    • blasphemy in the form of one cartoon (the narrator creates dozens of cartoons to illustrate his dilemmas).  

    • sexuality, but only in the form of adolescent fantasies, which include masturbation. 

     Now, here’s what’s strange.  Those who advocate pulling it unanimously agree that “Diary” is entirely appropriate for high school students—just not for younger teenagers.  

     So during those three middle school years, younger teenagers are somehow supposed to learn about cursing, sexuality, blasphemy, and racist jokes so they can deal with them when they turn, say, 16? 

     How, I ask?  From older kids?  From hearing three more years of cursing and sex talk from their peers? 

     What’s the best way for younger teenagers to explore adult conflicts?  By reading and discussing them them with classmates and a teacher, in a middle school class. That’s how it’s supposed to work.   

     All of the potentially offensive aspects of Alexis’s novel arise from the narrator’s life and observations as he struggles with alcoholic parents, a crazy sister, bullying, and his tribe’s history as outcasts in their own land.   

    The narrator struggles with frustration, despair, and rage at times.  Everything he does and says that’s offensive makes sense, given his life and outlook as a deeply frustrated, dirt-poor reservation Native American.    

     So Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” deserves to be read, discussed, and celebrated by teenagers and teachers alike as a memorable reflection on growing up poor and outcast.   

     Shame on those who would interfere with that.  
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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:  http://www.tm.org/#.VLKoCHQF0w4.email

    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.  

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    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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    • Health
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