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October 23, 1986 - Image 38

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The Michigan Daily, 1986-10-23
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no private practice, a clinician who has no
clinic, an untenured professor who has no ; :.
academic credentials in literature, ethics ,
or religion-the subjects he lectures on
most. Indeed, ever since he turned his
back on traditional psychiatry and headed
South in 1958 to observe the black children
who were integrating public schools in
New Orleans, Coles has ignored academic
and professional conventions. His reputa-
tion as a writer was achieved in his five-
volume series, "Children of Crisis," a mov-
ing and altogether original analysis of class
and caste in the United States, which won a
Pulitzer Prize in 1973.
Food stamps: In the late '60s Coles prodded
Congress on the plight of migrant work-
ers-testimony that helped lead to the
food-stamp program-and wrote speeches
for Robert Kennedy, whose children re-
main his close friends. Since 1974 Coles has q a s tdn M N
trained his eyes on children in other coun- 'His chief quality as a teacher is his humility': Coles leading one of h is many seminarsA
tries, wandering among academic disci-
plines and across national boundaries to regard such issues as remote. He also de- Agee. Don't ask him for a lesson plan: every
document what it means to be a child trying tected middle-class bias: poor and working- shirt-sleeve lecture is spontaneous. More
to grow up in the late 20th century. Some class kids, he said, are preoccupied with sermon than lecture, his talks are charac-
critics dismiss him as an out-of-date liberal; more immediate issues of survival. terized by gathering passion as Coles leans
others, noting his opposition to abortion Coles is not above puncturing his own and bends and ruffles his hair, summoning
and other latter-day liberal causes, com- intellectual arrogance and pride, a trait as his students to notice the ironies and ambi-
plain that he has become a social conserva- rare around Harvard Square as a street guities and always the radical mystery at
tive. Social scientists, in particular, criti- without an ice-cream shop. He delights the core of human experience.
cite him for failing to reach generalizable in regaling his intellectually aggressive In his seminars, on the other hand,
conclusions. But Coles pre- students with tales of how Coles is a trenchant listener. At times a
fers to remain unpeggable. supposedly troubled chil- Coles course-like his Duke seminar on
"Call me a migrant work- dren in backwoods Georgia "Public Policy and the Humanities"-will
er," he suggests. "I'm a or in a Brazilian favela have run from midafternoon until after mid-
shrink, a writer-a crank, I taught him lessons in moral night. "Students connect to the literature
suppose-but Iam most cer- understanding, thus expos- they read by immersing themselves in
tainlynot asocial scientist." ing the presumptuous mote Dickens's image of the law as a thicket of
What Coles has become in in his own psychoanalytic delays," he says, "or Percy's evocation of
recent years is an old-fash- eye. "His chief quality as a the boredom underneath the business-
ioned moralist, using litera- teacher is his humility, the man's drive to succeed. It's not profession-
ture and religion to punc- way he laughs at himself," al ethics we're after-medical ethics has
ture the smug attitudes of says Cliff Sloan, who did his become a matter of beepers-but what it
his privileged students, ask- undergraduate thesis under means to bea doctor or lawyer or business-
ing them to use the texts as Coles,graduated at thetopof man responsible to the whole human
mirrors in which to examine -his class at Harvard Law community."
their lives. For Coles, the School and recently finished Inevitably, many of his students view
chief moral issue-indeed, clerking for Supreme Court Coles as a mentor. It is a role he relishes,
the essential fact of life-is pride, particu- Justice John PaulStevens. "The whole mes-
larly as manifest by intellectuals. In print sageof Harvard as an institution runs in the
or class, his message is the same: if you oppositedirection." Coles has long focused
want to understand what life is really all In his 12 years at Harvard Coles has .
about, heed the great authors and classic bounced among nine departments. "He's his attention on
spiritual seekers and learn personally like a volunteer fireman," says faculty col- childrent
through service to the neglected. league David Reisman, "rather than one n, dramaically
At Harvard, where he graduated Phi assigned to a particular firehouse." But documenting what it
Beta Kappa in English literature 36 years wherever Coles lands, students seek him
ago, Coles is famed for fulminating against out, oversubscribing courses like "The Lit- means to be a child
social theorists who, he complains, misuse erature of Social Reflection," which under-
disciplines like psychiatry. Last fall, for graduates have dubbed "Guilt 105." What trying to grow up in the
example, he publicly accused leaders of the he teaches, essentially, is his personal list late 20th century
nuclear-freeze movement of exploiting of favorite authors-a pungent mix of reli-
children through dubious social-science gious and social critics including novelists
surveys to advance an otherwise meritori- Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy and
ous cause. Citing his own clinical studies, Georges Bernanos; poets William Carlos
Coles argued that, far from having night- Williams and Robert Frost, and essayists
mares about nuclear war, most children George Orwell, Dorothy Day and James



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