• Advice to Graduates: Do Follow Your Bliss

    • Posted on May 13, 2018

               
    Today's Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier Column:  Advice to newly minted graduates.  STEM and following your bliss: Teaching, transforming, and transcending.  

    Another May, another month of country-wide graduation ceremonies bringing free advice for graduating seniors. Here’s mine, worth up to maybe two cents.   

     “Follow Your Bliss,” insists philosopher Joseph Campbell, who wrote “Hero With a Thousand Faces,” “The Power of Myth,” and a half-dozen other ground-breaking books on mythical truths. Campbell believed that living a productive, happy life means following one’s bliss wherever it may lead. 

    But what if your bliss involves the creative arts? Music, painting, sculpting, theater, fiction, poetry, promise bliss for those talented and motivated enough to do them well. 

    One problem:  bliss doesn’t pay much.  Only a few find careers in the creative arts, so follow the money.   

    That’s the popular argument for not funding creative arts in school curricula, public art displays, or college course work. Seeking and creating mere beauty and wonder is play, not work, and therefore can’t be serious. 

    Stick with STEM, goes that argument:  Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and leave your bliss for weekends and holidays. 

    It’s a powerful argument, and contains enough truth to sway young minds. 

    But I reject it. Graduates of the Class of 2018, if your bliss lies in the creative arts, go for it.        

    Here’s why.  Engaging in the arts leads directly and inevitably into levels of teaching, transforming, and transcending. These are the “why” of art and artists.         

    Everyone engages in these activities on one level or another. That’s what makes them so essential and universal.  Creative artists just do them more directly and more often. 

    Teaching:  Humanity would get nowhere without teaching and being taught. Whether we humans teach indirectly by our actions, or directly with stories and lesson plans, our creations help move humanity toward deeper understandings. 

     Most of us can trace our life knowledge back to either some powerful experience, or a film, a piece of music, a painting, a novel.  I remember understanding “totalitarian” deeply after reading Orwell’s 1984 in junior high.             

     

    Transforming:  Just as important, we’re changed by what we do.  Life transforms us, and the creative arts gives perspective to our transformations, revealing insights not available elsewhere.  Consider Huck Finn, Twain’s memorable portrayal of a young boy confronting racism before the Civil War, forcing him to grow up. 

    Transcending:  The heart of the artistic enterprise is transcendence. We need to get over and beyond ourselves into the larger universe that’s really out there.  But we experience it only when we leave self-relishing behind, and at their best the creative arts show the way. Kubrick’s iconic film 2001: A Space Odyssey takes viewers “beyond infinity,” provoking awe and wonder.  

    Here’s the kicker, graduates:   Creative artists can bring bliss to whatever they do.  If they become engineers or mathematicians, they can still teach, transform, and transcend as artists with math.   It’s a different mindset that begins with creative arts and artists.

    They can live the “why” of creative artistry in any profession.   

    So, graduates, whatever else you choose, follow your bliss.             

    Go comment!
    Posted in
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    • Graduation
    • Education
  • Giving Optimism a Chance

    • Posted on Mar 11, 2018

    Here's today's (Sunday 3-11) Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier column.  It's about clear-eyed, evidence-based optimism based on Steven Pinker's new book ENLIGHTENMENT NOW. The book deserves a good look, and after a good pondering, a mind-change.  Hard-core pessimists will find reasons to dismiss it, but open-minded folks might find it helpful for rethinking the question of whether humankind is getting better at reaching long-held ideals.  

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    So, is the glass half empty or half full?  I’m trying a new answer. 

    For most of my adult life, I’ve been a half-empty guy. Having grown up in those dark “duck and cover” 1950s, when the cold war seemed to threaten us all with nuclear annihilation, pessimism came naturally.  As a young boy I followed news of the Korean stalemate, followed by the Vietnam debacle—not exactly wars that rewarded optimists.

    I led a life of low-level fears that made my dark outlook fit reality. I was a catastrophist and pessimist, expecting the worst and usually finding it. I tried to solve problems, but there were too many. Despair struck often.     

    My wife of over two decades was blessed with a half-full outlook, and therefore challenged my bleakness, but never for long.  Humor and music probably saved me from sinking into a life of misery. 

    Comes now Steven Pinker with “Enlightenment Now,” a well-researched and data-driven book that’s impossible to dismiss. It’s a full-throated shout-out for optimism that has given me pause. 

    Not the cock-eyed optimism of dreamers, but a conditional and cautious optimism based on mountains of evidence that shows how everything has improved. 

    I might have to try the unthinkable and change my mind. Horrors. 

    At first, I roundly objected to Pinker’s idea that mankind is better off in every way than it was during my growing years.  Notwithstanding pessimism, I at least appreciated a time before military weapons were available to children, when white faces and voices ruled radio, television, and the movies.  It all felt familiar and safe.  

    This was back when a Presidential candidate like Donald Trump would have been unthinkable for his divorces alone, not to mention his endless and obvious character flaws.   

    Those were the days, my friends, we thought they’d never end.

    Pinker’s point, which he began developing in his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” is that those good old days were pretty terrible for almost everyone. Income was meager, women and minorities were ignored or oppressed, two world wars had killed millions, famine, torture, disease, and cruel and inhuman treatment was the norm.  Even IQs were lower, according to Pinker, and he marshals charts, graphs, and data for every point.     

    In 2016, President Obama asserted, “. . .if you had to choose blindly what moment to be born, you’d choose now.”  Probably true, since modern medicine saves millions, as does better nutrition, better education, less violence, and so on.         

    Pinker cautions that none of the worldwide improvements to human life happened automatically. They required science, critical thinking, mass movements, motivation to solve problems, and large-scale financing.  Good will and optimism alone won’t change anything.  No complacency allowed. 

    So carry on, research scientists, engineers, teachers, problem-solving entrepreneurs, optimistic thinkers. You’ve succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, Pinker insists, and I’m inclined now to agree. 

    Pessimists, is the glass half full after all?  Read Pinker and maybe give optimism a chance.  

    Go comment!
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    • Nostalgia
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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.”

-Saul Shapiro, Former Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Editor
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