National Humanities Medal
Poet William Carlos Williams had a profound effect on the career of Robert Coles. “His vision about the role of the writer as someone who seeks to understand the world and to become involved in the world in his or her thinking or living, informed my notion of what the humanities are,” says Coles. The two met and became lifelong friends when Coles was studying literature at Harvard. Williams, who was a doctor as well as a poet, was the subject of Coles’s thesis. Williams inspired Coles to pursue a medical degree and to practice medicine among poor and vulnerable populations.
Coles has worked as a medical doctor, a child psychiatrist, a Harvard professor, and a magazine editor. Within each of these pursuits, he has used literature to think, learn, and teach about how humans should live.
He has won two Pulitzers, a MacArthur Fellowship, and in 2000, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Coles began in pediatrics, but eventually turned to child psychiatry. “I became interested not only in children’s bodily difficulties but in their response to them,” he says. He shares his exploration of children’s lives and sensibilities in many widely acclaimed books, including the five-volume Pulitzer Prize-winning Children of Crisis series.
Coles has written numerous articles, reviews and essays, and more than fifty books. He has contributed to magazines such as the New Yorker, the New Republicand the Atlantic Monthly, which published his first piece in 1960, entitled “A Young Psychiatrist Looks at His Profession.”
Coles spent two years as a military doctor, running a hospital at an air force base in Biloxi, Mississippi. His work in the South exposed him to children and families caught in the struggle for desegregation. He wrote about his subjects, “for someone like myself,” he says, “trying to understand the world through books.” His experiences serving the poor and underprivileged led him to champion volunteerism in The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism. In the South, he also discovered the works of Flannery O’Connor, which he later wrote about and incorporated into his teaching.
Coles returned to Harvard to teach and has remained there for twentyfive years, currently as the Agee Professor of Social Ethics. His popular class, “The Literature of Social Reflection,” draws five hundred students each year. Through the class, which is a rite of passage for many, Coles shares the works of his favorite writers: James Agee, George Orwell, Walker Percy, William Carlos Williams, and Raymond Carver, to name a few. Coles has also taught students of medicine, law, business, architecture, and education by finding connections between these disciplines and works of literature.
“It’s about using literature to ask all of us to stop and think about this world, its problems of race and class, of nationality and identity,” says Coles. “When I’m thinking about the world and trying to understand it, I prefer literature to what I see in the professional journals. These writers--novelists and short story writers--understand the nature of human complexities.”
Outside the classroom, Coles still sees young patients and integrates his work in child psychiatry with his literary interests. In The Moral Life of Children and The Spiritual Life of Children, he uses narrative techniques that let the children tell their own stories.
In 1995, Coles launched Double Take magazine. The name derives from its mission, which is a collaborative union of pictures and words. He says, “Double Take is the expression of my life and its commitment to the humanities.”
By Rebecca Webber