Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 883
Robert Martin Coles is a leading authority on the lives of the socially and economically deprived, especially children; he has also produced a substantial body of literary criticism and biography, directed not at fellow academics but at the general reader. He was born to Philip Winston, a politically conservative engineer who was trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Sandra Young Coles, a deeply religious woman who both praised his accomplishments and warned against pride and self-centeredness. Coles’s excellent education and training began in the prestigious Boston Latin School and continued at Harvard University, where he was a Phi Beta Kappa English major in 1950. He took his M.D. degree in 1952 at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Coles also enrolled in courses at Union Theological Seminary during this period. Between 1955 and 1958 he continued his medical studies at the University of Chicago and in Boston hospitals. Following his service in the military, he continued his training with residences and fellowships in psychiatry.
It was during his service in the Air Force that Coles’s career took a decisive turn. He was stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, as chief of neuropsychiatric services at Keesler Hospital and saw the early efforts at integration in the Deep South. This experience, about which he subsequently wrote often, made an indelible impression on him. When his period of service was over he established a practice in Vinings, Georgia, where he regularly called on black and white families undergoing difficulties because of integration. Coles decided to concentrate his professional work on studying the “children of crisis.” He also became an active member of the Civil Rights movement. He spent eight years collecting data and writing the first volume of Children of Crisis, which appeared in 1967.
The method he created for this and subsequent studies is called “social psychiatry,” which employs techniques of oral history, psychology, and anthropology. Coles frequently gains an understanding of children’s inner worlds by studying their drawings, examples of which he includes in the text of Children of Crisis. The focus of Coles’s work has been on the strength, dignity, and resiliency of children and dispossessed families. This approach has led many scholars and political leaders to praise him for showing the human side—the hopes, frustrations, convictions, and prejudices—of the poor and dispossessed in the United States and abroad.
In 1969 Coles published Still Hungry in America, a book that helped to establish the U.S. government’s food stamp program. In 1971 he published two more volumes of his study of children, Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers and The South Goes North, followed, in 1978, by Eskimos, Chicanos, Indians and Privileged Ones. In that year he and his wife, Jane Coles, launched a new two-volume study, Women of Crisis. Coles has also carried his studies abroad to examine how nationalism and political loyalty are taught to children in the strife-torn areas of Ireland and South Africa. Two volumes appeared in 1986: The Moral Life of Children and The Political Life of Children.
After a series of biographies, essay collections, and memoirs, Coles published The Call of Service in 1993, a study of the role that idealism plays in individual lives and in society. Doing Documentary Work grew out of Coles’s years of fieldwork investigation, offering his readers the benefits of the lessons he learned the hard way about documenting, both visually and verbally, the raw material of study. The Moral Intelligence of Children is a study of the ways in which children learn moral behavior. The Secular Mind was a work of synthesis for Coles, bringing together his work as a social scientist and as a literary scholar as well as his own spiritual background in a meditation on the replacement of religion by science in the modern world. Lives of Moral Leadership is a collection of short biographies of people who have inspired Coles throughout his life, from Robert Kennedy to a Boston school bus driver.
Coles’s work has received widespread attention from scholars, political leaders, and the public. Scholars generally credit him with developing an important new approach to the study of the ways in which social conditions influence the dispossessed. Political leaders have relied on him for expert testimony on social ills that need to be addressed, and the general public has found that his studies reveal the human side of those on the fringe of society. He has received many awards and honors, including a Pulitzer Prize for the second and third volumes of the Children of Crisis series and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for 1981-1986.
Coles is best known for his pioneering work in social psychiatry, yet he has also maintained what might be called a second career teaching and writing about literature. For many years at Harvard University, Coles has taught literature to graduate students in medicine, law, business, theology, and education as well as general undergraduates; his courses, which emphasize the enduring value of literature as a guide to life, are among the most popular at the university. Coles’s studies of writers such as William Carlos Williams, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor are extensions of his teaching. His book The Call of Stories, published in 1989, makes a compelling case for the importance of teaching literature, drawing heavily on the responses of students over the years.