As both a student and teacher, John Erskine's association with Columbia spanned nearly forty years. It was Erskine's conception of a General Honors course in classic texts that spawned the Colloquium on Important Books and later Humanities A. Although he never taught in a freshman core course, Erskine's influence on general education courses extended beyond the College to affect all of American education.
Although he was a gifted teacher, Erskine seems to have lacked a traditional scholarly disposition. His flamboyance, eccentricities, and literary ambitions set him apart from most of his more staid colleagues at the College. Nevertheless, what he lacked in academic formality he made up in humanity and purpose. His successful promotion of the General Honors course in 1920 was a pivotal event in twentieth-century American education. Erskine's expectations of a true education are embodied in the title of his most important essay, "The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent," and he infused his students with this zeal.
Erskine received his bachelor's degree from Columbia in 1900, his master's degree the following year, and his doctorate in 1903. After teaching English at Amherst College, he returned to Columbia in 1909 as a professor of literature, a position he kept (except for a short stint teaching soldiers during World War I) until he left the University in 1937. Erskine published his first poem at the age of 21, but his literary career didn't take off until the publication of the novel The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1925); he also published important essays, criticism, and two volumes of autobiography. An accomplished composer and musician, Erskine served as the first president of the Juilliard School of Music from 1928 to 1937, was a director of the Metropolitan Opera Association, and wrote several books on music.