Beyond Academia: Dr. Robert Coles Listens and Learns

Agee Professor of Social Ethics Dr. Robert Coles '50, the child psychiatrist and social observer, is famous for his contributions to the academy.

But instead of following the traditional and unfortunate academic sin of talking when no is listening, Coles has made a career of listening to people no one ever bothered to talk to.

From going door-to-door in the slums of New Jersey to being on the frontlines of the civil rights movement to teaching his lecture-hall filling Harvard elective, Gen Ed 105, "The Literature of Social Reflection," Coles embodies the ideal of considering people--from small children to towering figures--with equal weight to their importance as humans.

And for his compassion, Coles has achieved--he serves as a research professor affiliated with Harvard Medical School and University Health Services. He has penned numerous books and hundreds of articles, has appeared on a Newsweek cover, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and has traveled from South Africa to Northern Ireland.

But more important than a resume, Coles, even now, professes that the traditional trappings of isolated academia are stifling. For Coles, his life and his work examining children and culture depends not on abstract theory inside the Ivory Tower, but the stories of ordinary people struggling with their circumstances.

Call to Service

Despite all his success, Coles probably never would have become a doctor at all without help from two unlikely sources: a Harvard professor of literature and a New Jersey poet.

The English professor was the Puritan scholar Perry Miller, with whom Coles developed a close relationship while an undergraduate.

"He was the one who encouraged me to take these nerve-exhausting premed courses," Coles remembers.

Miller also encouraged Coles to send a paper he wrote about William Carlos Williams to the Paterson, N.J. poet-physician himself.

Coles received a letter back from Williams, scrawled on the back of a prescription, inviting him to visit.

So when Coles was visiting friends in New York, he made the trip across the Hudson River to meet his intellectual hero.

Williams offered to take Coles with him to make house visits. Armed with his black doctor's bag, his "great coat" and his notebook, Williams tended to the poor and sick of Paterson's tenement houses with Coles by his side.

Coles remembers Williams' words that inspired his career as a psychiatrist: "Go out and find people in the world that you can help."

According to Coles, it was Williams' strong letter of recommendation that got him into Columbia Medical School upon his graduation from Harvard--certainly not his grades in science courses or the community service that occupied much of his time at Harvard. Even in medical school, Coles had trouble with the work.

Recommended Articles