• Exposure Needed for Bad Ideas

    • Posted on Sep 03, 2017

    Today's Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier column.  Free speech really does mean just that, especially on a university campus where debate and discussion form the heart of higher education.   UNI's "Controversial Speakers" program was memorable not only for the speakers it brought before students and faculty, but also for the spirited defense of free speech set for by President J.W. Maucker as well as Cedar Valley ministers, no less.  


    Imagine a university program that actually invites controversy, that sets out to make sure opposing viewpoints get aired, that seeks speakers who generate discussion and debate.  

     That’s exactly what happened at UNI just over a half-century ago, in the spring of ’66.

    UNI’s student and faculty Senates created a “Controversial Speakers” program.  
    This event gets explained in “A Century of Leadership and Service,” a wonderful two-volume history of UNI written by Professors William Lang and Daryl Pendergraft.  They detail UNI’s attempt to challenge students and faculty with speakers they might not otherwise hear. 

    The Iowa Board of Regents fully supported the program, saying it was “designed to demonstrate that in a democratic society all citizens have not only the right but also the obligation to inform themselves on issues of contemporary concern including politics, religion, ethics, and morals.”  

    I began my UNI teaching career as the program was gearing up.  I heard many of the speakers, including Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, civil rights activist Dick Gregory, beat poet Allen Ginsburg, and most bizarre of all, hippie/yippie Jerry Rubin, who in 1970 harangued 5,000 UNI students and faculty at O.R. Latham football field.  

    Some legislators were outraged, most prominently Charles Grassley, who roundly objected to speaker American Communist Party speaker Herbert Aptheker, calling Aptheker’s invitation to speak “deplorable and shameful,” and that “compulsory student fees and buildings paid for by the taxpayers were used to support this un-American philosophy under the guise of freedom of speech.” Other legislators chimed in, putting pressure on UNI to bar such speakers from campus.  

     However, 22 Cedar Falls and Waterloo Ministers defended the program, writing in a letter to the Courier, “. . . an integral function of higher education in a free society is to provide free discussion,” and that SCI students “exhibited a high degree of maturity in evaluating. . .speakers and opinions.” 

    President J.W. Maucker, speaking of Jerry Rubin’s wild speech, insisted that Rubin’s appearance “proved to be a worthwhile experience of a large majority of students and faculty because they got a chance to see this man in action firsthand and judge for themselves the soundness of his views.”  

    “Maturity.”   “Judge for themselves.”  Such words and phrases seem almost quaint these days, when “free speech” means huge protests during the speech and often cancellations out of fear of violence. 

    Let’s face it, a certain degree of faith in listeners’ maturity and judgment is required to invite such speakers as Ann Coulter or David Duke. As Oscar Wilde put it, “I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”  

    I’d like to see the return of a UNI Controversial Speakers program. Speakers on contemporary critical issues, fringe or not, would demonstrate how much we value free debate. Bad ideas only grow stronger when opposed with violence and censorship.   

    Open peaceful debate remains the best way to expose charlatans. 







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    • Censorship
  • Happy Ending At Last in Cedar Falls

    • Posted on Apr 10, 2016
    This morning's (April 10) Courier column on the Cedar Falls School Bond election last Tuesday.  Good news and a happy ending for a change.   

    Cedar Falls Bond supporters finally got good news last Tuesday.  Their perseverance won.   

    Two previous bond proposals did not—in September, 2014 for 118 million, and June last year for 35 million. The winner last week was for 32 million.  Three million seemed to make the difference.  

     Well, only partly.  The cost to taxpayers was about the same.  

     Actually, the community seemed to change its mind.  Elementary enrollments are increasing, making overcrowding inevitable.  Also schools are visibly deteriorating. 

     You don’t want your schools looking third world, as though public support were unavailable.   Worse, if public support is available but not given, it shows a community turning its back on itself.       

     Yet this time, even hard-core naysayers like Judd Saul, who was loudly and vocally against the first two referendums, supported it.  His reasoning, according to one report, came down to the school using 8 million in its reserve funds. The actual cost will be forty million, with bond funds only covering 32 million.  

     So even to naysayers like Saul it seemed like good money management. 
    When I heard this bare-bones proposal had passed, I breathed a sigh of relief.   If it hadn’t passed with the needed supermajority, those of us who care about public education would have gone into despair mode.  
    A loss would have put naysayers in charge, making any real progress all but impossible.  More classes in trailers.   More jammed-up school hallways filled with storage containers. Larger classes, lower teacher morale.  Public education in decline. 

     A deteriorating school system sits right next to a deteriorating infrastructure as visible signs of community decline.  

     When you visit a city as a possible new home, you want to see signs that it’s taking care of itself.  Badly potholed roads, shuttered buildings—College Square, anyone?—bode ill, and deteriorating schools reveal a community that no longer bothers.     

     However, in Cedar Falls, a vibrant downtown Main Street, a saved historic Depot, and as of last Tuesday, a renovating school system, make it all go together. 

     Repairs, remodeling schools, and construction of a new elementary school mean citizens still want a community that cares about its future.   

     And yes, the current repair of University Avenue sits right up there as a sign that yes-sayers are still in charge.  

    Roundabouts are coming here, and in a decade we’ll all be thankful.  The larger world out there happily uses roundabouts, after all.    

     Condition of a school system and roads reveal the future of a city, now and always.  Cedar Falls 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 wrote in 2014 in support of the first bond issue.  

    In fact, I did despair after that first loss, and immediately contributed to the school system as a token of support.   

     A hearty thanks to Superintendent Andy Pattee, the Cedar Falls School Board, and all the yes voters who look to a positive community future.    

     As a former student and resident of Cedar Falls wrote when he saw the good news:  “The covenant has been nurtured.”   


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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

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Read Shapiro's entire introduction.


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