A Way of Seeing:
The Work of Robert Coles

By Scott London

Robert Coles is a child psychiatrist, professor at Harvard University, and author of more than fifty books. He is best known for his explorations of children's lives and books that explore their moral, political, and spiritual sensibilities. He is also known as an eloquent spokesman for voluntary and community service — the subject of his book, A Call to Service. In addition, he has written literary criticism, numerous biographies, reviews, poetry, social commentary, several children's books, and regular columns for the New Republic, New Oxford Review, and American Poetry Review.

Robert Coles

Coles describes himself variously as a doctor, child psychiatrist, oral historian, social anthropologist, teacher, friend, storyteller, busybody, and nuisance. Interviewers, journalists, and reviewers often seize on the apparent contradictions — he is a physician without a conventional practice who teaches college literature; a psychiatrist who rejects much of the language of his field; and a Harvard academic who spends much of his time volunteering in ghetto schools.

Coles's refusal to be pigeonholed professionally, along with the wide scope of his work, make considerable demands on the reader of his books. Simply finding the threads of continuity in his life and work is no easy task, but it is made all the more difficult by the nature of his narrative style. Most of his books, including the acclaimed five-volume Children of Crisis series and the subsequent three-volume The Inner Life of Children series, are based on a method of long-term direct observation, expressed in extended narratives around which he offers practically no organized commentary or interpretation. Coles's technique is to get to know children, students, volunteer workers, etc., ask them significant questions, and simply let them speak. He strongly believes that people's stories speak for themselves.

As a result, Coles's books are written in a way that does not allow for a clear characterization of his position or for sweeping generalizations. He does not start from a given point and progress to deeper and broader insights. Rather, he circles around certain themes, sometimes appearing to make a point and then quickly moving away from it. For stories to have force and moral significance, he insists, they must be told in the words of the characters themselves.

Coles's Method

Coles refers to the method behind his explorations of children's lives as "documentary child psychiatry." As one reviewer noted in the New York Times, he "virtually invented the genre." Coles's technique is an outgrowth of his early distrust of traditional psychiatric nomenclature and method. "Everything was interpreted, given a name, and attributed derivatively to the 'oral' or 'anal' stage of libidinal development," he recalled in his biography of Erik H. Erikson. The technique of free association in order to recover the buried life of childhood seemed to him irrelevant for use with children.

In fact, Coles discovered that the many children and adults in the midst of crisis whom he interviewed over the years seemed, in most cases, quite normal psychologically. In many instances, the more strenuous the challenge, the greater depth of character the subject demonstrated. Speaking of his early work among children desegregating New Orleans schools in the early 1960s, he recalls: "I was looking for 'psychopathology' in those early years of my residence in the South." But what he found instead was "remarkably little psychiatric illness ... despite their trials."

In 1961, he attracted considerable attention with an article he wrote in The Atlantic Monthly challenging traditional psychiatry. "When the heart dies," he reflected, "we [psychiatrists] slip into wordy and doctrinaire caricatures of life. Our journals, our habits of talk become cluttered with jargon... We embrace icy reasoning."

As Coles grew more and more dissatisfied with classic psychoanalytic technique, he nevertheless remained skeptical of the quantitative method of the social sciences. As he explains in The Political Life of Children,

I am not a survey social scientist. I can claim no definitive conclusions about what any "group" feels or thinks.... One can only insist on being as tentative as possible, claiming only impressions, observations, thoughts, reflections, surmises, speculations, and in the end, a "way of seeing." ... I aim essentially to evoke, to suggest rather than to pursue a more cognitive approach or psychopathological orientation.

Without an explicit agenda from either psychoanalysis or social science, Coles simply aims to present the people he interviewed. Although he does offer comparative, historical, and even theoretical observations on the lives of his subjects from time to time, those observations are always secondary to his main purpose. "The whole point of this work," he stressed in Children of Crisis, "has been to put myself ... in a position, with respect to a number of children, that offers them a chance to indicate a certain amount for themselves to me, and through me, to others. But each life, as we ought to know, has its own authority, dignity, fragility, rock-bottom strength."

The Moral Life

As Coles listens to people talk about their lives, he has been impressed and moved by their moral sensitivity, by the ways in which people reflect on their lives in moral terms. He has been astonished by the moments of sudden insight that quite "ordinary" people experience. In The Moral Life of Children, for instance, he reflects on the life of Ruby Bridges, the six-year- old girl who figured prominently in the first volume of Children of Crisis, with whose study Coles began nearly thirty years of work. Ruby was one of the black children who, in the face of abusive, even violent, resistance, initiated school desegregation in New Orleans. Her mother told Coles that every night Ruby prayed for those in the mob who threatened and harassed her. "I think of the many black children my wife and I came to know, in Arkansas and Louisiana and Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi — and of the white children too, who braved awful criticism to befriend them.... Whence that moral capacity, that moral spirit, that moral leadership? How are we to make sense of such moral behavior in psychodynamic terms?"

Coles feels that no one in his field of child psychiatry, or in related fields, has fully appreciated the ability of even relatively young children to pose questions about the meaning and "moral significance" of life. In their reactions to the events and circumstances of everyday life, he has found that children possess a keen moral sensitivity to ideals and values, to what is right and wrong, and to the reasons underlying what people do, feel, and think. "No one teaches children sociology or psychology," he remarks, "yet, children are constantly noticing who gets along with whom, and why."

All the same, Coles finds that children have a different "moral notice" than adults — the issues and circumstances they find morally compelling tend to be directly linked to their everyday lives. "Children know and favor the concrete," he finds, and "an abstract moral issue is hard for them to comprehend as thoroughly real and pressing." For instance, during the height of the nuclear arms race he discovered that poor children living in the rural South had no real knowledge of the nuclear threat, while their urban, middle-class counterparts knew considerably more about it. The immediate concerns of the poor children — hunger, discrimination, poverty, and injustice — were more compelling in their minds than questions of nuclear war. This is reflected in the words of one black child from Mississippi who said, "If the Ku Klux Klan ever got that bomb, it would be real bad for us."

In a separate, widely-quoted 1990 study published in Teacher magazine, Coles found that children decide what is right and wrong largely by listening to one another and watching was goes on around them. When asked about lying, stealing, using drugs, abortion, or their reasons for choosing a job, they expressed rudimentary ethical systems or "moral compasses," as Coles called them. These turned out to be more important than traditional background factors such as economic status, sex, race and even religious practice. Yet he found that these moral standards are increasingly set aside as children begin to reflect the values of society. The pressure to succeed and the mindset that "'what works' is 'what works for me'" begins to supplant that inner voice. "Sadly," Coles said, "as so-called 'cultural literacy' grows, what could be called 'moral literacy' declines."

Political Socialization

Coles believes that children's political lives merge with their moral lives. In The Political Lives of Children, he shows that they learn their politics much as they learn their morality — from parents, school, and peers. He found this to be true not only in the United States, but in countries all over the world. "A nation's politics becomes a child's everyday psychology," he explains. But even though their political thoughts and actions tend to be influenced by the concerns of their environments, in many instances children struggle with moral and political quandaries all their own. Coles finds that children as young as four or five possess what social scientist Robert Connell called "intuitive political thinking." They also grapple with profound ethical questions. While most children may never have read Plato or Aristotle, he says, "their imaginations are charged by continuing participation in family politics, and their inclination to go from that kind of world to the larger one is no different from Plato's, Aristotle's, Hobbes's, Locke's, Freud's...."

Coles conceptualizes the family as something of a miniature state, characterized by many of the same moral and political concerns as a nation at large. For many children, the family dynamic typifies the interpersonal relations and the continuous jockeying for power and influence that takes place in the political world. Coles suggests that nationalism results from the transfer of parental authority to the state. Nationalism is also an important means for children to identify with their communities — and with themselves as young citizens. They often use the traditions, legends, and historical experiences of their countries to help forge distinct identities. "Nowhere on the five continents I've visited in this study has nationalism failed to become an important element in the developing conscience of young people," he writes. It "works its way into just about every corner of the mind's life."

The stories that Coles narrates in The Political Life of Children reveal again and again a dynamic interplay between areas of freedom and areas of constraint. This interplay, it seems, is at the center of the developing moral and political consciousness of children. As Coles explains:

Class for Carlos and Maria, and for their well-to-do or very rich Brazilian age-mates, is the major force that race is for all South African children, religious affiliation for all of Northern Ireland's children, the French language for Canada's children, Polish as a language and Polish as a historical phenomenon are for, say, the Warsaw children I met, Sandinista ideology is for Managua's schoolboys and schoolgirls — a determining element in shaping the life one lives, a means of figuring out not only where one stands in the world, but, very important, what one's country stands for: its values, its purposes, its way of behaving toward its people.

It is important to remember that Coles offers these interpretations with some hesitation. Always mindful of the dangers of sweeping generalizations and hastily drawn conclusions, he leaves it to the reader to make his or her own inferences based on the narratives. When asked about this approach in an interview, Coles explained that "What I've had to do is leave the realm of social science, which strives for predictability, consistency, and theoretical amplification.... Anyone who has gone through the years that I went through of psychiatry, child psychiatry and psychoanalysis develops a theoretic mind. While I've had to hold on to some of those virtues, I've also had to leave behind much of that way of thinking in order to turn toward what I think stories offer us — an appreciation of complexity, irony, ambiguity, inconsistency, fate, luck, chance, circumstance."

The Power of Narratives

Throughout his work, Coles insists that his subjects' stories, not his own theories and preoccupations, are of central interest. Too much psychiatry is based, he contends, on the elitist notion that only the therapist can discern the true story, while the patient dodges and evades the truth. In contrast, Coles says that he has "tried primarily to convey or evoke the thoughts and feelings of others.... I have tried to describe the circumstances, the conditions of life, that they as particular individuals must come to terms with and (such is their fate) try somewhat desperately to overcome."

In The Call of Stories, he relates how he received an invaluable piece of advice from Dr. Ludwig when, as a young doctor, he was beginning to feel his way around the psychiatric wards at Massachusetts General Hospital:

"The people who come to see us" [Dr. Ludwig said after hearing Coles use the word psychodynamics once too often] "bring us their stories. They hope they tell them well enough so that we understand the truth of their lives. They hope we know how to interpret their stories correctly. We have to remember that what we hear is their story." To listen deeply was, for Dr. Ludwig, much more important than "getting a fix" on the patient or deciding on a "therapeutic agenda." While these may have a value, he preferred the human being to the abstraction, the "story" to reductive formulas that rushed past it.

Coles feels that we learn our most lasting moral lessons through stories. Storytelling, in the form of both personal narratives and the established literary tradition, gives us a fuller understanding of ourselves and the experiences of others. "The whole point of stories," he observes, "is not 'solutions' or 'resolutions' but a broadening and even heightening of our struggles." They remind us of what is important in life, admonish us, point us in new directions, engage us in self- reflection, and sometimes inspire us to lead lives of moral integrity. The beauty of a story, he says, is in its openness — "the way you or I can take it in, and use it for ourselves." Often they embody "the moral contradictions and inconsistencies in our personal lives," and thus give context and meaning to the social and political narratives of society at large.

One of the courses Coles teaches at Harvard is called "The Literature of Social Reflection." Also known as General Education 105, it was for several years the most popular undergraduate offering at the University, attracting more than 600 students. The course centers on the lives and literature of writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Orwell, and Agee. These writers all sought to connect moral ideas to the practice of everyday life, Coles explains — to link stories and experience in meaningful ways. He believes that this is the challenge we all face as we try to make sense of our lives and those of others.

Voluntarism and Community Service

For Coles, there is a distinct connection between stories and voluntary service — he sees them as two aspects of the same natural impulse. As he notes in The Call of Service (a companion to the Call of Stories), narratives are "a means of glimpsing and comprehending the world," while "service is a means of putting to use what has been learned, for in the daily events designated as service, all sorts of stories are encountered and experienced."

Throughout The Call of Service, Coles relates the stories of his teachers and mentors — people such as Dorothy Day, William Carlos Williams, and Anna Freud — who he feels are important role models of service. They heeded the "call to us, [the] call to service — that we join with others to try to make things better in this world," as Dorothy Day once said.

Based on his extensive work with volunteers of all sorts, and as a long-time volunteer himself, Coles believes that service can have a transformative influence on those who heed the call, even though they frequently experience doubts, misgivings, depression, and even a sense of futility and despair. The satisfactions of service are plentiful and sustaining, he says, conferring importance on small interactions and providing affirmation to those involved — often in place of lasting social or political change. He finds that the volunteers who are most successful are those who genuinely like the people they meet, who quickly lose the sense that they are martyrs making a sacrifice and, most importantly, who realize that they are getting something in return. Again and again, Coles's stories affirm that service is not a hierarchy but a reciprocity in which the distinctions between teacher and pupil, giver and receiver, helper and helped constantly dissolves.

Coles feels that service ought to be an essential component of higher education. Reflecting on our ties to the larger community, and what we are able to offer it as individuals is, after all, what colleges and universities are all about. "A major consequence of community service for many, young and old alike," he writes in The Call of Service, "is an inclination to think about those words 'community' and 'service,' to seek in them some larger vision that might hold the attention of that community known as a nation and that institution dedicated to serving the people, known as government."

Coles has been called "the most eloquent speaker in the country on the topic of community service for students." When asked about it in an interview, he explained that service is "a tremendous way for students to learn sociology and anthropology, psychology and social ethics, and, in a sense, to learn about others and about themselves in the most effective way I know. One does learn by doing as well as by reading. Education is not only a function of books, but a function of experience and connecting what one reads with ongoing observations and experiences."

Voluntary service is natural moral impulse, according to Coles. It is "linked to a human instinct that's part of all the religious traditions." This instinct is present even in little babies lying in a crib in the nursery, he says. When they hear a cry, they respond by crying. The motive to service is a gut elementary empathy we're capable of in the first months of life. But, he says, "unfortunately, a lot of us lose it through education, in the family, and maybe even in the schools. We learn to elbow our way to the top, ignoring people to the right and left of us all the time — this in the name of education. We become people who, as Walker Percy put it, get all 'A's' but flunk ordinary living."