DURING THE 1960's American academic liberals underwent a painful and self-conscious transition, emerging from the quiescent fifties into a decade of constent social and political unrest--such development is telescoped in the career of Dr. Robert Coles. The atrophy of the Eisenhower years protected middle-class professionals such as Coles, who were training for their careers, from the agony of commitment Not least of Coles's surpassing talents has been his willingness during the last decade to redefine professional and private loyalties, and to reassess the traditional division of observation to personal involvement in the social sciences. Coles ranks with a tiny number of scholars who have been able to maintain their scholastic integrity while at the same time participating in social reform movements such as the civil rights and anti-poverty drives.
Two feats testify to his ability to straddle the gap in his profession between action and observation. Volumes 2 and 3 of Children of Crisis, his award-winning study of the 25 million Americans abandoned and misunderstood by the powerful and privileged in this nation, have just been released. Equally important, hundreds of migrant workers, mountaineers, slum dwellers, and sharecroppers recognize Coles and call him by his nickname. He has testified for them before Congressional subcommittees, doctored them, occasionally counselled them, and intervened as their intermediary in times of trouble.
"Past mistakes" have made Coles leery of naive categorizations and label-prone ideologies when considering the complexity of the human mind and soul. He intends to, and does, disappoint and confuse audiences hungry for expedient clarifications, statistical analysis, and schematic theoretical conclusions.
Living for extended periods as the guest of migrant workers, black and white urban and rural poor, sharecrop farmers, mountaineers, and working-class whites taught Coles to respect their stature as dignified and resilient persons confronting the common dilemma of working out a suitable means of facing life's cruelties, inconsistencies, and ambiguities. He studies not only their problems, but their lives, in order to communicate both "what is strong as well as weak, what is sound as well as what ails, what may be struggling for expression in a person's life as well as what is lacking." To Coles, arrogance and jealous presumption are criminal. With a novelist's sensitivity to character and potential, he aims to "do justice to" his subject's indomitable courage to survive (in the words of one migrant wife: "The only thing we can decide, my daddy used to tell me, is whether we'll stay alive or whether we won't") to endure, and even, in some cases, to prevail against a fate of degradation and neglect. His work pries loose stereotypes by which we, in the position to affect relief, conveniently demean the poor and thereby free ourselves from guilt for their wretchedness.
CARACTERISTICALLY, Coles has no illusions about the occupational dangers inherent in meeting life's "sadder and grimmer side." His attempt to "Evoke, apprehend and come to terms with the psychological realities of particular men, women and children," by unifying their recorded words into "an affirmation, a statement, a lamentation, in all its perplexity" revealed to Coles the susceptibilities he was heir to as a white, middle-class professional from a conservative family. He overcame impulses to rhapsodize about the poor, to emphasize only the negatives of their condition, and to savor the irreconcilable ironies and paradoxes of their doggedness before overwhelming odds.
Coles's initiation into political activism--exposing exploitation and agitating for governmental reparation as a doctor, a concerned citizen and a social observer--has been an arduous process against the grain of his upbringing. He is quick to pay tribute to the challenge his work involved.
"I certainly have changed a lot already as a result of the ideas I've dealt with. I've been brought up short, reprimanded and told off by policemen, firemen, parents, garbage collectors and community organizers. It has been a psychoanalysis as thorough and as unnerving as the training I went through to become a psychiatrist."
No one who knows the slightest bit about Coles's personal history can, with justice, accuse him of inaction. Urged by the conviction that "somehow we all must learn to know one another," Coles has written, in the space of barely ten years, 13 books and hundreds of articles. Although no political organizer himself, as early as 1962 he joined hands with SNCC, with CORE, and the Appalachian Volunteers, and in 1964, with the McComb Freedom House and the Mississippi Summer Project. (He and Stokely Carmichael taught a seminar on non-violence to college students preparing for the 1964 civil rights crusade.) In 1965 he evaluated and helped improve the medical project of the Mississippi Headstart Program for the OEO. His testimony before the National Advisory Committee on Farm Labor and the Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor influenced critical Congressional funding for the War on Poverty in the late 1960's. The migrant health plan Congress enacted was partly his work. After the 1968 Farmington, Va., mine disaster, Coles acted as intermediary to channel assistance to the families of stricken miners.
"One can say what I've done is only patching up problems, when, in fact, the problem is structural. I would only agree...The question that is proper to ask is to what avail is all of this. To some avail, I believe. In certain segments of these issues, for instance, the nutrition levels of certain groups, and the health and safety of miners, there has been some change...I don't mean to be optimistic in a fatuous way, but I do see real possibilities for social change. May be I have to believe that for a person like me to go on with what I'm doing, or may be I've seen enough to give credulity to that kind of statement...But I really distrust seers and secular experts, and whatever has been done, has not been enough, not by any means."
BEHIND Coles's slightly manic energy is a great man often described as a "saint." Certainly his personal animation, mobility of expression and depth of compassion are rare. Rarer still is his capacity to greaten without loss of humility. For example, in response to suggestions that he failed to discriminate sexual prejudice as finely as he did those of race and class, Coles admits it is true he has "much to learn about what women are struggling for, against and with." After 1976, when the final work of Chicanos, Indians, and Eskimo children will complete Children of Crisis, Coles is considering "coming full circle to my origins" and observing, from the identical methodological and structural vantage point, middle-class suburban life. One key to Coles's feeling that, in gratitude for "a few moments on this earth" he must let his curiosity and beliefs guide him to provocative action, may be contained in a statement from Henry James, given to him by his mother, and which he carries, tucked into his wallet, everywhere with him:
"We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have; our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."