- Curricular Commons
Challenging General Education Students, and Ourselves
San Francisco’s inaugural poet laureate, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, first read his “Challenges to Young Poets” at the city’s Annual High School Poetry Festival on February 3, 2001.
“To be a poet at sixteen is to be sixteen, to be a poet at forty is to be a poet,” Ferlinghetti told his youthful audience. “Be both,” he counseled.
Ferlinghetti isn’t just any poet. His intellectual leadership is deeply grounded in experience and education. He was a U.S. Navy ship commander in World War II and is the recipient of an M.A. from Columbia University and a doctorate from the Sorbonne. He has influenced generations of writers, artists, academics, and citizens as the co-founder and owner of City Lights Bookstore. His own writing, and the work of others he has supported, takes it as axiomatic that the poet’s mandate finds structure and substance not only (if at all) in the university, but also in everyday questions, emotions, and knowledge drawn from life beyond the classroom.
The publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems, Ferlinghetti was anything but timid in his commitment to the value of a public commons. He was arrested, and acquitted in 1957 in the freedom of expression precedent-setting obscenity case generated by his publication of Ginsberg’s poetry. Ferlinghetti is an internationally respected painter and playwright and a tireless mentor and public intellectual who brings the joy and the gravitas of intellectual pursuit into the forefront of wide public awareness. A Coney Island of the Mind remains among the highest selling poetry volumes ever published.
At a Westwood reading in the late 1960s, a young person asked Ferlinghetti why so many poets seemed esoteric and out of reach. Could poetry be both cognizant of its structure and legacy, and accessible too? [End Page vii]
The poet’s job is to communicate to his readers, Ferlinghetti said. A poet who can’t be understood is a failure.
Volume 64.3 of Journal of General Education: A Curricular Commons of the Humanities and Sciences arrives on campus as students, faculty, advisers, and administrators immerse themselves in autumn semester traditions that include the offering of general education courses, and (what some may consider) A Coney Island of the Mind reconsideration of the general education curriculum by faculty senate committees, deans, and department chairs.
The articles by David Aitchison, Eniko Csomay et al., Robert Zai III, Jane Venes, and Stephen Biscotte approach general education from several methodologies and perspectives. Not surprisingly, assessment (what are we teaching? Are students learning what we think we’re teaching?) and curricular reform (what should we be teaching?) are at the forefront of their inquiries. Taken together, they share in common a belief that general education can and should produce academic learning and intellectual experience beyond each student’s chosen disciplinary path in the humanities, sciences, or professions.
The authors’ contributions are published here with the goal of encouraging readers to engage in what Ferlinghetti might see as a curricular poetry, the purposeful offering of a collection of courses that challenge students to immerse themselves in general education at eighteen because they are learning about what others have found to be of value, and to continue with thoughtful inquiries at forty because they have learned to explore and to question.
This issue’s challenge is not to students alone. We—faculty, advisers, and administrators—need continually to develop and redevelop curriculum and pedagogy that students understand, not because it is simple or dumbed down, but because it is meaningful. Curriculum and pedagogy that, analogous to Ferlinghetti’s response to his Westwood inquisitor, succeed at communicating the joy and intellectual excitement of inquiry and exploration, because to do less is to fail as educators. [End Page viii]