Columbians Ahead of Their Time
Mark Van Doren
Mark Van Doren Nothing in man is more serious than his sense of humor; it is the sign that he wants all the truth.

Mark Van Doren (1894–1972)
PhD 1920
Faculty 1920–59; Emeritus, 1959–72

A legendary classroom presence who inspired generations of Columbia students—many of them future writers and critics—Van Doren was a poet, editor, and biographer as well as a scholar and teacher. Among his writings are Collected Poems, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1939; American and British Literature since 1890, with his brother, Carl Van Doren; critical studies of various authors, including John Dryden and Nathaniel Hawthorne; several anthologies, and The Noble Voice, a collection of essays.

Van Doren joined the Columbia faculty after earning his PhD here in 1920, and was among the original band of young scholars who taught John Erskine's General Honors course. Over subsequent decades, he would open the world of ideas and poetry to Columbia students, among them alumni poets Louis Simpson, Richard Howard, John Hollander, John Berryman, Thomas Merton, and Allen Ginsberg. He guided the planning and helped launch of Humanities A in the Core Curriculum ("Lit Hum," a cornerstone of the Core to this day) and taught a section himself for 17 years, an experience about which he said in his autobiography "nothing I ever did with students was more fun." Upon his retirement from full-time teaching at Columbia in 1959, Van Doren told Newsweek: "I have always had the greatest respect for students. There is nothing I hate more than condescension—the attitude that they are inferior to you. I always assume they have good minds." After he retired from teaching at Columbia in 1959, he continued writing. Today the students of Columbia College honor great teachers with the Mark Van Doren Award.

Read more about Mark Van Dorenin the Columbia Encyclopedia.


Van Doren's influence helped bring Joseph Wood Krutch to Columbia's literary forefront, in the Columbia Magazine Living Legacies series.


A leading public intellectual, he was an education reformer and social activist—and arguably America’s greatest philosopher.

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