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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  • Three Stretcher-Books for Holiday Giving

    • Posted on Dec 18, 2005 by Scott Cawelti

     12-18-05

    Finding gifts these days presents challenges for givers, except for readers.  People who read and who buy gifts for other readers have little trouble finding great holiday gifts. 

     I’m talking books.  These near-ancient artifacts still sit at the top of my giving and getting list. They’re relatively inexpensive, they last for years, and they can be inscribed with personal sentiments.  Picking up a good book is like starting a pleasant journey with a friend.

    You can’t live in bubble for long if you read, especially books that offer challenges to your comfort zone. After all, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable amounts to a major Christian value. 

    First, What Evolution Is, by Ernst Mayr.  (318 pages, Basic Books, 2001)  A UNI colleague recommended this to me around the time of the pro-Intelligent Design speaker.  Thankfully it’s not for specialists; I mostly understood it on a first read.  And I found it utterly convincing.  Though loaded with challenges, it’s certainly the best book on the subject I’ve read. 

    What Evolution Is covers everything anyone would want to know about evolution. Some chapters:  “What is the Evidence for Evolution on Earth?”  “How and Why does Evolution Take Place?”  “How did Mankind Evolve?”  “What Criticisms have been Made of Evolutionary Theory?”  In lucid prose, Mayr shows that evolution explains the natural world quite convincingly, from the single to the billion-celled, and shows how the “theory” has never been effectively challenged. 

    Mayr in fact objects to the loose use of “theory” by some who call it as “just a theory.” He asserts, and effectively proves, that “Evolution is not merely an idea, or a concept, but is the name of a process in nature, the occurrence of which can be documented by mountains of evidence that nobody has been able to refute.”

    As for creationists and their cousins the Intelligent Design-ists, Mayr suggests that

    “My account is directed to those creationists who want to know more about the current paradigm of evolutionary science, if for no other reason than to be able to better argue against it.”           

    Second, a wake-up call: Collapse. (Viking, 2005).  Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond wondered why several complex, thriving civilizations seemed to quickly collapse—disappear--for seemingly no reason. The Easter Islanders, the Mayans, the Vikings, the Anasazi, and more recently the Rwandan culture all collapsed, and Diamond explores why in convincing detail.  He offers twelve causes, some old, some new. 

    Clearly, “collapse” could happen anywhere, so Diamond’s discoveries apply to our own thriving, complex civilization.  No doomsayer, Diamond believes we can avoid a “collapse” if we deal with the causes in time.  The first step could well be reading this book.

    Finally, anyone who worries and wonders about fundamentalists—Islamic, Christian, or Jewish, needs to read The Battle for God, by Karen Armstrong (Ballantine, 2000) Armstrong traces the history of fundamentalists in those three major world religions from 1492 to 1999.  Her observations shine a spotlight on current dilemmas with fundamentalists and their desire to remake the world in their own image.

    A brilliant writer, Armstrong seeks not to judge or condemn but to explore the radical fundamentalist movements that have so shaken our world.  As she says, “Fundamentalists have gunned down worshippers in a mosque, have killed doctors and nurses who work in abortion clinics, have shot their presidents, and have even toppled a powerful government.  Only a small minority of fundamentalists commit such acts, but even the most peaceful and law-abiding are perplexing because they seem so adamantly opposed to many of the most positive values of modern society.” 

    Armstrong asserts that fundamentalists and secularists continue to alienate one another, with secularists showing “scant respect for religion and its adherents.”  And this sobering thought: “Secularists and fundamentalists sometimes seem trapped in an escalating spiral of hostility and recrimination.” 

    The Battle for God helps readers understand how fundamentalists came to be so opposed to secular society, and that’s the first step toward reconciliation of these two fractious human factions. 

    These books amount to aerobics for the mind, good for anyone who needs to get their thoughts pumping.

    Go comment!
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  • The Ideal College President

    • Posted on Dec 11, 2005 by Scott Cawelti

    12-11-05

    A new search is gearing up at UNI for a president to replace Bob Koob, and it won’t be easy.  The Board of Regents has its own ideas about how the search should be conducted, and so far they haven’t included many faculty. 

    Indeed, last week UNI faculty stated their displeasure with the current search committee by circulating a petition that ends with “We believe that the current presidential search committee does not faithfully represent the true nature of our university’s mission.”

    They believe that the faculty is sorely underrepresented (two out of twelve) on the current search committee, and want more faculty input throughout the search.  The Board of Regents, so far, hasn’t seemed too excited about including faculty.  No one knows why. 

    Well, I’m here to offer faculty input, such as it is, by describing the ideal UNI president.  I’ve known four of them quite well, and therefore feel qualified to offer at least a passing observation. 

    What traits define the ideal UNI president?  What kind of person would please the greatest number of faculty, students, parents, taxpayers, Board of Regents, and legislators, so that he/she receives universal acclaim?

    Right away you can see the problem: Pleasing so many constituents, all of whom have conflicting interests.  Taxpayers want to pay less, faculty want more. Students want a guaranteed job in four years after a relatively easy, fun education.  Parents want the guaranteed job, but a serious education, at least on paper.  Everyone worries about binge drinking.  

    So here are the five traits of the ideal president, someone who would please everyone.

    1. He/she would have successfully owned and operated a business before getting a PhD, after having served in the army on active duty, preferably in combat.  That way no one can complain that he/she’s lived a sheltered “bubble” life in the ivory tower.  Parents and legislators especially will appreciate this.  Students and faculty won’t mind either, especially when he/she tells war stories about a real war, or tells them about his experiences as a CEO, hiring and firing with the best of them.  We’ll all feel proud.
    2. He/she would also have been a successful teacher and researcher in respected departments in several prestigious universities, preferably in the hard sciences, like physics, chemistry, biology, or barring that, engineering or medicine.  No lawyers please; we have enough of them running the country. These experiences would mean he/she came up through the ranks like all faculty, and not just in the mushy swamps of the arts or humanities, but in the disciplined, serious world of the laboratory or the T-square.  No one will whine that he/she is an ex-hippie –thus endearing him to growing numbers of conservative faculty.

          3.  UNI’s new ideal President K . . . (keeping the Kamerick/Curris/Koob alliteration     tradition) would be a family person, bringing with them a personable spouse to serve as host or hostess of about a dozen social functions a week.  If the spouse    can play an instrument or sing, so much the better. Of course he/she must be        charming, funny, and willing to like everyone.  Yes, it’s a tough gig.

                4.  In addition, our ideal president must possess something like charisma, meaning  a powerful stage presence that sets them apart from almost everyone.  That means being able to articulate intelligent thoughts on practically everything at any time.  Also being tall and well-dressed won’t hurt, nor would a dollop of good         looks, all of which adds to the charisma.  

          5.   Finally, and most important, UNI’s new ideal president must be a visionary.  Somehow he/she will foretell the future and lead the university toward that           shining academic utopia where everyone will wonder why they didn’t see what     he/she saw.  Faculty will happily follow such a visionary anywhere, since they’re            confident he/she knows what needs to be done to fulfill the university’s promise   to its students well into the 21st century. 

    So that’s UNI’s new president who would please everyone:  A non-academic academic, a worldly, experienced, down-to-earth charismatic visionary.  

    If he actually exists and is not already sainted, knighted, or worshipped as the founder of a religion somewhere, we’ll take him.  Or her.  

    Go comment!
    Posted in
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    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
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