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.

"Bob wasn't really geared to the biological sciences," says Dr. G. Richard O'Connor '50, who was Coles' friend in medical school.

"He was a lot more interested in literature and art than he was in bones and tissues," agrees Dr. Paul Davidson '50, another Columbia friend.

By Coles' own admission, he struggled through the first two years of medical school.

But he continued making house calls in Paterson with Williams, and when he was able to visit patients in the wards during his third and fourth years, Coles hit his stride.

He graduated in 1954--the year that Brown v. Board of Education struck down racial segregation in public schools.

Down South

After being drafted into the military--as all doctors were in those days--Coles found himself at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss.

It was an eye-opening experience for Coles, who grew up in an all-white Dorchester neighborhood and had never been in the South.

In 1960, on a trip to a conference at Tulane Medical School, Coles got caught in traffic on the way into New Orleans. Apparently, the police had blocked off the roads into the city.

Coles was frustrated that he would be running late. "Then I heard a storm of epithets," he says.

The epithets were directed at Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old girl who, with the help of federal marshals, was trying to become the first black student to attend the Frantz School.

Coles's wife, a schoolteacher named Jane Harrowell, encouraged him to go into the school and meet Ruby. "Here is a girl going through a social crisis," Coles says. "I was wondering, 'What was happening to her?'"

What Coles found when he talked to Ruby was shocking even to him, a trained child psychiatrist.

Ruby held no ill will toward the angry white people who cursed at her and tried to block her from entering the school. In fact, she prayed for them and felt bad that they were so unhappy.

Today, Ruby Bridges Hall remembers just being happy to have found a friend in Coles at a time of great loneliness.

"Bob is like a father to me," she says. "I owe so much to him."

Coles was fascinated by how a child in such a difficult situation could maintain such an outlook on life. He had noticed this optimism when treating victims of a polio epidemic at a Boston hospital in the late 1950s.

The next year, when Atlanta high schools were desegregated, Coles shuttled back and forth from Atlanta to New Orleans, meeting with children and talking to them informally in their homes.

"I had no institutional affiliation," Coles says. "I was a loner, a maverick."

He took as his guide the advice that Perry Miller once gave him about children: "You have a lot to learn from them."

"Those words have informed my life," Coles reflects.

What Coles says he has learned after 50 years is children and their innate capacities should never be underestimated.

Often, says Coles, psychiatrists and psychologists fail to appreciate this.

"We become blinded by our knowledge," he says. "We forget there is other knowledge to be had."

"Be very careful about applying psychiatric labels to children that often cannot do justice to their possibilities and potential," he says.

Rather than labeling, Coles tries to let children's stories speak for themselves. He won critical and popular acclaim for his five volume work, Children of Crisis, which chronicled his interactions with Ruby Bridges and other children.

A Life of Activism

While giving poor children a voice, Coles was always busy raising his own.

Coles' social conscience was always central to his life, notes O'Connor, who says Coles called himself a "Christian communist" while in medical school.

And necessarily, the subjects of Coles' writing lent themselves to social progress. Concern over Coles' Still Hungry in America directly provoked the food stamp program of the late 1960s.

Coles befriended Catholic activist Dorothy Day after meeting the pacifist egalitarian at her soup kitchen, and he wound up contributing to her journal, The Catholic Worker.

Coles' feet were as active as his pen.

Once in the South, Coles got involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC),

leading some to jokingly refer to him as "SNCC's resident shrink." Coles also marched with Martin Luther King Jr.

Later in the 1960s, he openly supported Fathers Daniel and Philip Berrigan--brothers and renegade Catholic priests who opposed the Vietnam War.

He worked for Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy '48, who--along with King--was gunned down in 1968.

Coles' office walls bear images of RFK--as well as those of labor organizer Cesar Chavez and Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed by El Salvadoran military in 1979.

Despite his left-wing tendencies, Coles was always careful not to alienate the average people he studied. He had no patience for intellectuals who philosophized without bothering to see what real people were really like.

"He is really concerned about people," Robert Taylor wrote in a Boston Globe review of Coles' 1971 The Middle Americans. "Not group abstractions, but individuals."

A Scholar and a Gentleman

In reviewing Coles's career, one tends to forget that since he left the South in 1964, he has had to balance his activism with the demands of academia.

In 1964, Harvard psychoanalyst and sociologist Erik H. Erikson asked Coles to return to Boston to work with him. Coles says Erikson's Childhood and Society was a major influence on him, and he jumped at the chance.

For three years, Coles led sections of Erikson's classes. When Erikson retired, Harvard offered Coles a teaching job.

Coles gradually extended his freshman seminars of the late 1970s into Gen Ed 105--one of the most popular electives at Harvard.

The idea for the course, says Coles, springs from Erikson, who allowed Coles while a teaching fellow to use novels along with social science texts.

Gen Ed 105 examines modern authors who have written on social problems, ranging from Coles' heroes like Williams and Day to masters like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Flannery O'Connor.

"I love being kept in touch with the books I teach in the course," he says.

Students say what they love most about the class is Coles' level of attention to his students.

Timothy F. Wyant '00 describes Coles as a "wonderfully humble" man who is able to incorporate his own life into his teaching without ever losing his focus on other people.

He calls the class "amazing, memorable, unforgettable, one of the best two or three classes at Harvard."

What most impressed Wyant was when Coles found out he was writing his thesis on Tolstoy, a favorite author of his, and spontaneously offered to be Wyant's thesis advisor.

While Coles may not have the personal relationship with the 19th century writers that he did with Williams and Day, the idiosyncrasies of his personality and background color his chosen course readings.

For instance, Coles' father, a British Jew originally named Philip Cohen, was a "great admirer" of George Eliot.

And Flannery O'Connor's iconoclastic style fits Coles perfectly.

"She had little patience for the secular pieties that a lot of us take for granted," says Coles.

According to Richard O'Connor, "unconventional" was always the best way to describe Coles, who was prone to wearing sweaters with holes in the sleeves to important meetings.

Over the years, professionals long out of graduate school--if they ever attended graduate school at all--have flown in to Cambridge from across the country in order to serve as teaching fellows for Gen Ed 105.

Last fall, Terms of Endearment star Debra Winger led a section. Coles says she did a great job.

Not long ago, Bruce Springsteen--a friend of Coles'--had expressed interest in the usually thankless job. He attended a couple of lectures, delivered a presentation on Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man as his audition and was ready to serve as a teaching fellow for the course.

However, Springsteen's touring schedule conflicted with the weekly sections and Tuesday morning meetings with Coles.

Moral Matters

Flannery O'Connor's work also brings out an idea Coles has focused on in his recent scholarship--the notion of moral intelligence.

Coles says O'Connor novels show that "you can be smart and well-educated, but not necessarily good."

In his recent The Moral Intelligence of Children, Coles questions whether American children are being taught the right things in school.

"When you're trained to use your mind to answer multiple choice tests," he says, "you forget the other ways of using your mind."

It has taken Columbine and other tragedies to wake America up to the idea that children's moral development is as vital as their intellectual growth, Coles says.

"Well, it's about time," he says.

Always the radical, Coles qualifies his applause for "family values" conservatives, like former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who have appropriated some of his ideas about children and morality to justify policies like abstinence-based sex education in schools.

"I don't think these [moral] concerns should be the property of the Republican Party," he says, smiling.

The most famous man to almost serve as a teaching fellow for Gen Ed 105--who in 1996 objected to Bob Dole playing "Born in the USA" at presidential campaign events--would be proud.

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