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The investigator of morals began his life, he cheerfully admits, as a sometimes selfish child. His mother was from Iowa, his father from England. They met and married in Boston, where Coles was born and still lives. His mother worried about injustice, discrimination, and poverty, and was part of the Catholic Worker movement, which was trying to cure these ills through good deeds: feeding the hungry, clothing the poor. His father was sterner, less certain that acts of charity could have a lasting impact, and skeptical about psychological analysis and the social sciences. At the dinner table he offered his children this definition of character: “Character is how you behave when no one is looking.”
His parents had exacting standards—they took their moral life seriously—and they found a major source of inspiration in literature. Literature can be a moral catalyst, they realized, because great writers explore a serious question: why do people do what they do? Growing up, Coles would often hear his parents reading to each other. Tolstoy, Hardy, Eliot, Emerson, Thoreau: they regarded these writers as friends helping them find a moral path through life. Dinner conversations would analyze what the writer intended, what choices the characters might make, and what might be done instead.
But as a boy Coles did not love great books; he loved comics. He wished his parents would read upstairs, so he could tune the radio to The Shadow. Nor did he always consider morality to be the stuff of pleasurable contemplation. As a young man he rebelled, thinking his mother off-puttingly pious. Only slowly did he come to value his parents’ wisdom, and appreciate how deeply their principles had seeped into him.
His life has been devoted to the moral evolution of humanity, which he defines as a gradual growth of connection and solidarity. The problem, he says, is that we lack one of the basic kinds of intelligence. In The Moral Intelligence of Children, he suggests we need to develop three kinds of intelligence: intellectual, emotional, and moral. We have long placed a premium on intellectual intelligence, and in the past generation or two have also emphasized emotional intelligence. Moral intelligence has not been given the same value. Yet it is our moral development that allows us to live out our conscience, and thus live a life that is sane and whole.
Children acquire moral intelligence, Coles believes, by observing what we do, not what we say. Explaining a theory or belief is fine, but if not supported by the proof of concrete experience, children are unlikely to make it their own. A key ingredient in developing moral children is to figure out what we want transmitted, and then act morally ourselves. Parents (and teachers and guardians) need to be moral leaders and mentors to children, rather than buddies. Coles is the father of three sons. Raising them, he was struck at how often they would teach him: to slow down, to listen, to be present, to love. When children are old enough to be affected by our speedy, materialistic society, Coles says, we need to stand alongside them, to use the word “we”—to help them know they are not facing the onslaught alone.
Like his parents, Coles believes one of the most powerful ways we learn morals is through stories. Literature and poetry bring us deeper knowledge of ourselves, life, and the world. “The whole point of stories is not ‘solutions’ or ‘resolutions,’” he writes in The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, “but the broadening and even a heightening of our struggles.” Coles’ writing is personable and non-academic, searching and sincere. He writes like he talks. Insights are offered and theories proposed, but the point is to consider issues and develop discussion, not necessarily frame a conclusion. Interviewees’ ideas and concerns are prominently presented, too. His books are part documentary, part heart-to-heart-to-heart chat.
As he grew older, Coles learned from a number of teachers—in school and out—who emphasized his interests in morality and the power of language. He was leaning toward a career as a teacher, but inspired by the renowned writer-doctor William Carlos Williams, decided to become a doctor, and eventually a child psychiatrist. He found the courage to write Williams, who invited Coles to visit him at his New Jersey home. The student did, many times, joining the doctor on his rounds among the poorest people of Paterson. They discussed books as well as health—and the connection between the two.
Williams believed most people to be stuck and unhappy, feeling somehow disconnected from their own lives. He referred to habitual thought as “the regularly ordered plate glass” of life. Plate glass, because it is transparent, gives the illusion of intimacy, but in reality it separates you from the other side. He did not trust the abstract mind working on its own, and believed writing could be “subverted by thought.” His slogan “no ideas but in things” (later embraced by Allen Ginsberg and other Beat generation writers) underscored his belief that the earthy and ethereal need each other, and together ground life in genuine connection.
As a psychiatrist in training, Coles’ first appointment was at the Massachusetts General Hospital. His supervisor, Dr. Alfred O. Ludwig, stressed that rather than merely making a diagnosis and setting a therapeutic agenda, it was crucial to truly understand patients. The key to doing this, Ludwig said, was to listen to their stories. He warned that doctors can lose a story’s nuances and subtleties in “overwrought language and overwrought theory.” This, he said, led doctors to become less humane, and to understand people only in theory.
Coles first came to public attention with an article in The Atlantic Monthly. “A Young Psychiatrist Looks at His Profession” was a critical assessment, at a time when few psychiatrists voiced such concerns. He suggested that psychiatry, because it emphasized “form, and detail, and compliance,” was too bureaucratic and institutionalized. “For the individual psychiatrist, the institutional rigidities affect his thoughts and attitudes, taint his words and feelings, and thereby his ability to treat patients,” he wrote. “We become victims of what we most dread; our sensibilities die, and we no longer care or notice.”
Coles’ youthful idealism ran into a brick wall of reality when, in 1958, he and his wife Jane, an English teacher, moved from Boston to Biloxi, Mississippi, where Coles was stationed as an Air Force psychiatrist. When they were off the base, they were appalled at the legalized discrimination, the culturally condoned suffering. Wondering what they could do, Jane suggested Coles spend more time getting to know people in their homes. It was she who suggested he call Ruby Bridges; Coles was busy, he acknowledges dryly, focusing on “my career.”
Among Coles’ experiences in the South, perhaps the most frightening was his narrow avoidance of a violent death. He was with civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andy Goodman in Neshoba County, Mississippi, and about to join them in their car when he was called back to the office. The three were chased down by a mob and killed, in the case that came to be known as the “Mississippi Burning” murders.
Coles was a front-line participant in the struggle for civil rights. He expanded his study of school desegregation to include other students and other states. His hands-on, in-depth style of research got its start in Atlanta, after black leaders refused to allow him access to students there. Coles asked if he could help in some other way, and was jokingly told he could—by keeping their offices clean. So he became their janitor, and cleaned the offices for a year. “I slowly learned,” he writes in The Call of Service, “to abandon my reliance on questionnaires and structured interviews and instead to do, to experience service, and thereby learn something about what those young people had in mind as they went about their activist lives.”