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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  • Graduates! You're Not Ready

    • Posted on May 12, 2013 by Scott Cawelti

    Published this morning in the Waterloo Courier.  Graduation season 
    provokes long, long thoughts.   

    Finally it’s May, graduation month.   Time for ending and beginning. 

    Ending, meaning getting certified with a degree. That’s the first half.   

    Hearty congratulations to certified graduates.   If you’re renting a robe and flat hat this month, you’ve completed half of your graduation. 

    The other half?  Beginning the rest of your life.  That’s what “commencement” means, after all. 

    Graduates, you’re now supposedly ready to begin.  And if you’re not a tad 

    terrified, you’re not paying attention.  

    Truth is, your formal schooling cannot have made you ready.  Not even close.  

    Nothing that formal education offers, and I mean from Ivy Leagues to taxpayer-supported all-purpose schools—has given you enough knowledge and skills for the churning world you now enter.  

    This is not due to grade inflation, rewarding mediocrity with high grades for little work.  Nor because states have cut back radically on financial support for academics, downgrading education in favor of sports for entertainment.   

    The problem lies deeper and is more insidious.   

    The fact is, our lives and times no longer can be prepared for.  We’re living in an evolving world of utter unpredictability.  A world of black swans, to quote from Nassim Taleb’s book of that title.   

    Events erupt for which no one could have prepared or predicted. 

    Make no mistake: More black swans wing their way toward us.  

    Examples:  Superbugs capable of inflicting pandemics that make past plagues look like rehearsals.  Weather gone wild, with climate change creating challenges beyond our capacity to accept. Widespread “Colony collapse” of honeybees that pollinate a third of the world’s crops. 

    A major religion hijacked by fringe elements ready to die and kill for their beliefs.  Nuclear weapons and other WMDs likely to fall into the hands of fanatics/lunatics.  North Korea’s there now.   

    More positively, breakthroughs in biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology that will create or clone humans who live virtually forever, if they can afford and endure it.  Humans who are more machine than human, as Ray Kurzweil explores in his book “The Singularity is Near.”  

    Machines that outthink, outlive, and outmaneuver us at every turn.  Siri, anyone?

    And other events too bizarre to even imagine, but that will cause us all to rethink everything.   

    That’s the world you inherit, graduates, and must somehow negotiate.   

    You will wake up any number of mornings and face calamities and/or breakthroughs that not even sci-fi writers have conjured, at least in any accurate detail. 

    You think I jest?  Imagine a columnist writing in 1961, the year I graduated, and 

    offering some version of what actually happened from then to now. 

    Instant fingertip knowledge, 500-channel media, digitization of media, Facebook and Twitter with billions (yes, billions) caught up in seeking and finding their 15 seconds of fame for capturing anything bizarre enough. Passenger jets turned into missiles by fanatics.   Bottomless oceans of self-expression that engulf us all in shameless narcissism. 

    Were 1961 grads  “ready” for any of this?  Writers from that era who foresaw what actually did occur would have been reviled or ignored.  Of course none did. 

    I was no more ready for those shattering decades than sleepers are ready for a sinkhole to swallow them whole.  

    I would have chosen to stay in my little early sixties comfort zone of electric typewriters, secretaries who did the paperwork, women who stayed home and cooked and cleaned.  Tiny televisions broadcasting three channels. Three-chord pop music with great melodies and nonsense lyrics.  

    Most of what my classmates and I thought and did before our commencement 

    no longer makes sense.  I had to reinvent my worldview and myself several times, and only partially succeeded. 

    The times are not just a-changin’. They’re exploding—in every field, in all directions, at speeds beyond comprehension. Compared to the last fifty years, the next fifty will be on steroids.  

    So forget about being “ready.”   Rather, be teachable.  Malleable.  Flexible.  Curious.  Humble.  

    In short, become a human learning center, ready to be taught by anything and everything as it occurs.   

    That’s the beginning—commencement—of real readiness. 

     

     

     

     

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    Posted in
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
    • Hot Button Issues
    • Graduation
    • Education
  • On Hating High School

    • Posted on Nov 08, 2012 by Scott Cawelti

    Note:  I wrote this just before my 30th high school reunion, which I didn't attend.  
    By the time of my 40th and 50th, I had changed my mind, and attended both, more or less happily.  Still, I stand by the points here.  Those were awful years, 1958-1961) but not because of classmates, most of whom I liked personally.   I wanted to clarify that, since this may have seemed a bit harsh.  I do know plenty of others also had a very hard time during high school for the reasons I explored.  
    --Nov. 8, 2012.  

     6-23-91 

    Make no mistake, I have nothing against people who enjoyed high school. People who breezed through, who never brooded over nasty personal comments, who graduated without becoming mildly paranoid, I admire and envy.

    I'm certainly not one of them. From the first day of 10th grade to the last day of my senior year at Cedar Falls High, I was miserable. Not upset, or dysfunctional, or hostile. Just miserable.

    What was the problem?

    Well, there was personal incompetence. Nothing made sense, nothing worked right, nothing came out like it should.

    When I wanted to appear cool, I was a klutz. When I wanted to burst forth with an elegant phrase, I blurted childish cliches. When I wanted to make friends, I made foolish gestures that turned people off. And when I wanted a date, I sweated blood, wishing to GOD I had been born without bodily urges.

    Yet if personal incompetence had been my only problem, I would have gotten along fine. I could see flashes of competence at times, mostly when I got over being so self-conscious.

    There was also a larger problem: heavy pressures to conform. Adherence to some vague standard of behavior prevailed, enforced daily by both open and veiled taunts. Rather than become outcasts, most of us gave in and shamelessly conformed.                  

    The result was a building full of various degrees of phoniness. We hid our individuality under cloaks of false friendliness, of cool talk and gestures, of costumes that we came to wear less by choice than by peer pressure.                               

    We had no minds of our own. Only if we trusted a close friend or two could we talk freely about our deepest selves. Even then, occasional gut-rending betrayals occurred in locker rooms and hallways.                             

    Brutal comments enforced the standards. During the late fifties, adolescents regularly slashed classmates with verbal knives. Physical, emotional, and social defects were favorite targets for stabbing. 


    I weighed about 140 pounds when I graduated, and stood just under six feet. Grotesquely skinny, in other words. No matter how many hamburgers and malts I wolfed down, I stayed stick-like.

    So for four years I was reminded of my toothpick arms and legs by kind classmates. "Hey fizzy," they'd call me, for "physical wreck." That passed for wit in high school.                       

    I took small comfort in the fact that others were far worse off. One guy was short, squat, and socially inept.  He quickly became the class outcast, the butt of everyone's jokes. How he survived three years of slings and arrows from outrageous classmates remains a mystery.

    Worse, if that's possible, we all felt conflicting pressures and demands: grow up or stay a kid. Hang out with friends vs. sit home with parents and siblings. Explore sex or remain celibate. Drink beer or Pepsi. Socialize or work. Smoke and be cool, or turn them down and be a nerd. Take school seriously or blow it off and enjoy life. 

    Strangely enough, I didn't know all these forces made me so miserable while in high school.  But after thirty years, a pattern of highs and lows has emerged. And even the worst years since high school turned out better than anything from 10th to 12th grade.  Those three years now seem the swamp and muck, the very pits of my life.

    College, teaching, marriage, two children, my mother's death, divorce and remarriage, graduate school, work of various kinds, more teaching, multiple professional challenges came along after high school. These events, plus gaining about forty pounds, formed my current attitudes far more than high school.      

    And that's why I paused when high school classmates asked me to help with the Cedar Falls High thirtieth reunion next weekend. I wanted to like the idea. I realized that I should go. I might even force a few laughs. But as I imagined the evening, I could only muster indifference mixed with light rushes of misery.  I told them no thanks.  

    Still, I wish my class of '61 CF High classmates well this weekend. As I say, I admire anyone who enjoyed high school.                        

    As for me, high school passed on thirty years ago, and I have no desire to resurrect it. 

    Rest in peace, you miserable three years.

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    Posted in
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
    • Hot Button Issues
    • Nostalgia
    • Graduation
    • Education
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