Erskine’s Life As a Teacher

Guest Post by Claude Clayton Smith.

I was 13 in 1957 when my junior high English teacher asked us to read a book about someone in the career to which we aspired. I enjoyed school, so I figured I’d become a teacher. Happily, I found what I thought was the perfect book at our town library—My Life As A Teacher by John Erskine. But no doubt its opening sentence spun my 13-year-old head:

Nothing in education needs explaining more than this, that a teacher may be neither a professor nor an educator, that a professor may mature to the age of retirement without teaching or educating, and that an educator, without loss of reputation, may profess nothing, and never face a class.

Sixty-four years later, after ten years of teaching English at the secondary level and thirty as a professor at the university level, I appreciate what Erskine was saying. But all I could remember from junior high was that he had taught at Amherst College.

Re-reading Erskine confirmed my best instincts. “I wanted to be a teacher,” Erskine wrote, “and I wanted to write.” In the classroom he developed writers by “encouraging each individual to discover for himself the manner and the style which was natural and characteristic.” The teacher’s part was “to connect the reading with the pupil’s experience.” What could be more simple or obvious?

Erskine began teaching at Amherst in 1903, and later, at Columbia, became the father of the Great Books course. There were negatives, certainly. At Amherst, Erskine found his students ill-prepared and had to institute a course in spelling. (“The elements should have been acquired in high school English.”) Erskine also soon discovered that: “No professor is thought so necessary as the coach.”

It’s now 2021. What else is new?


My Life As A Teacher by John Erskine. J.P. Lippencott Company, 1948.

Reviewer bio: Claude Clayton Smith, professor emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University, is the author of eight books and co-editor/translator of four others. His website is: claudeclaytonsmith.wordpress.com.

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