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Coles to Receive Highest U.S. Civilian Honor

* Presidential Medal awarded on Thursday

By Georgia N. Alexakis, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

Robert M. Coles '50, Agree Professor of Social Ethics at the Graduate School of Education (GSE), will receive the nation's highest civilian honor--the Presidential Medal of Freedom--on Thursday.

"The first thing I thought of when the White House called me with the news was all the children that I've worked with over the last 25 years," Coles said. "Their stories and their lives all led to that phone call."

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded by the president to individuals who have made exceptional contributions to national security interests, worlds peace or other significant public and private endeavors.

Coles--a child psychiatrist, recipient of the 1981 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Prize and a 1973 Pulitzer Prize winner--has worked to understand the lives of children from a variety of backgrounds.

As a neuropsychiatrist in the Air Force, Coles began working with children undergoing the stress of school desegregation when he was stationed in Louisiana during the 1960s.

"Over the last 30 years, I've worked as an anthropological field worker, even though I'm really a physician," Coles said. "I do my work in the home, neigh borhoods and schools.

"I began to learn early on that children and their families have stories to tell about their lives," Coles added.

Coles, a research Psychiatrist for University Health Services and a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at the Harvard Medical School, has taught courses at several schools across the University since coming to Harvard in 1977.

Coles also teaches General Education 105: "The Literature of Social Reflection," using great works of Literature to advance moral and social inquiry. In recent years, the course has attracted more than 400 undergraduates.

"In literature we find a kind of human truth that does justice to the complexities and ambiguities of the human existence that we can't always find in social theory," Coles said.

The author of more than 50 books and 1,200 articles, reviews and essays since 1961, Coles says he "prefers using words that I was seeing and feeling rather than the words that I use when I write in technical journals."

"The White House official [who informed me of the honor] told me that the President and Mrs. Clinton had read my books going way back when they were in law school," Coles said.

After speaking a conference on the homeless on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Coles said he will attend "a two hour shinding" at the White House with the 14 other Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients.

"I had to buy a suit for the occasion," Coles said, explaining that his three children told him that he could not wear his usual corduroys and sweaters to the White House ceremony.

Coles' colleagues said his past work 1made him worthy of the president's honor.

"He has been tremendously influential in many domains throughout his career," said Jerome T. Murphy, dean of the GSE. "Each year there is a long line to enroll in his courses because he is so popular. He knows so much about kids, particularly kids who are dealing with poverty and who are at risk. He demonstrates such compassion and passion in his teaching."

Murphy added that Coles is a suitable candidate for the honor because of the emphasis he has placed on the need for increased public service.

"What strikes you most is how deeply committed he is to social justice and how deeply committed he is to telling the story of ordinary people and the traumatic situations they face," Murphy said.

Gregory A. Johnson '72, former Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) director, agreed with Murphy, citing Coles' commitment to student-run volunteer programs.

In the 1990s, Coles led a program for Harvard students involved in summer PBHA activities which combined literary readings and seminar discussions to give participants the chance to reflect on their volunteer experiences.

"He added the missing reflective component to the program," Johnson said. "You can't be a good human servant unless you have a conception of the milieu in which you are serving."

Johnson, a former senior tutor of Adams House, said that Coles--an associate of Adams House--has made incomparable contributions to Harvard.

"There is no one like him at the College--that is the most clear way to put it," Johnson said. "An incredible human being, a masterful teacher--he is one of the most popular professors to ever grace the College, with good reason."

Other recipients of this year's award include: Brooke Astor, the New York philanthropist; Justin Dart, Jr., considered the father of the Americans with Disabilities Act; Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers; and Wilma Mankiller, who became the first women to be elected as the leader of an American Indian tribe.

Past recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom include former Senator Bob Dole, former surgeon general C. Everett Coop, A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., public service professor of jurisprudence at the Kennedy School of Government, Eugene Lang, founder and chair of the "I Have a Dream" Foundation and Joan Ganz Cooney, the creator of "Sesame Street.

"He has been tremendously influential in many domains throughout his career," said Jerome T. Murphy, dean of the GSE. "Each year there is a long line to enroll in his courses because he is so popular. He knows so much about kids, particularly kids who are dealing with poverty and who are at risk. He demonstrates such compassion and passion in his teaching."

Murphy added that Coles is a suitable candidate for the honor because of the emphasis he has placed on the need for increased public service.

"What strikes you most is how deeply committed he is to social justice and how deeply committed he is to telling the story of ordinary people and the traumatic situations they face," Murphy said.

Gregory A. Johnson '72, former Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) director, agreed with Murphy, citing Coles' commitment to student-run volunteer programs.

In the 1990s, Coles led a program for Harvard students involved in summer PBHA activities which combined literary readings and seminar discussions to give participants the chance to reflect on their volunteer experiences.

"He added the missing reflective component to the program," Johnson said. "You can't be a good human servant unless you have a conception of the milieu in which you are serving."

Johnson, a former senior tutor of Adams House, said that Coles--an associate of Adams House--has made incomparable contributions to Harvard.

"There is no one like him at the College--that is the most clear way to put it," Johnson said. "An incredible human being, a masterful teacher--he is one of the most popular professors to ever grace the College, with good reason."

Other recipients of this year's award include: Brooke Astor, the New York philanthropist; Justin Dart, Jr., considered the father of the Americans with Disabilities Act; Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers; and Wilma Mankiller, who became the first women to be elected as the leader of an American Indian tribe.

Past recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom include former Senator Bob Dole, former surgeon general C. Everett Coop, A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., public service professor of jurisprudence at the Kennedy School of Government, Eugene Lang, founder and chair of the "I Have a Dream" Foundation and Joan Ganz Cooney, the creator of "Sesame Street.

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