Robert Coles: Humanist, Educator, Child Psychiatrist, Harvard Professor Emeritus, Civil Rights Activist…Oh So Much More!

“Where you read a book and when and with whom can make a big difference.” –Robert Coles, “The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination

Happy 84th Birthday to Robert Coles. Have you ever heard him speak? Have you read any of his books?  Oh What a Man!  I probably was introduced to him by mom, who you’ve read several times already, returned to college when I was about 6 years old and attended night school 10 years to obtain her undergraduate degree. Robert Coles remained with me throughout my career as an educator and my unending career as a parent. The above quote is quite personal; my son didn’t enjoy reading as a student, so I would read to him or we would take turns reading to each other and to this day he remembers some very wonderful books that touched his heart, i.e.: The Island On Bird Street by Uri Orlev. In fact, when he was teaching a summer school group in Brooklyn before he got an actual teaching job in NYC, he shared that book with his Chinese students; this was a Chinese student summer learning program in the Bensonhurst neighborhood in Brooklyn that prepared its students for middle school grades 6-8. That young boy who didn’t enjoy reading now loves it, went onto teach in NYC for 4 years and is currently living and teaching in India for 2 years along with his wonderful lady who is also teaching there.

Back to Robert Coles…I learned this morning that his mom was a big influence on his outlook and that she introduced young Robert to the teachings of the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day. I think I read that his mom used to get Day’s newsletter in the mail.

“Coles suggests that one’s worth is ultimately measured not by knowledge or intellect but by how one acts when no one is looking. He encourages his students to look to poetry and literature for a different and valuable perspective on the universal experiences of pain and suffering, and seems to imply that a patient’s subjective health status may be at least as important as the “objective reality” provided by sophisticated forms of medical technology…Coles urges his students to find meaning in the stories their patients tell them, even if they do not share similar cultural or literary backgrounds. Stories give us glimpses into realities we cannot articulate, choose to ignore, or have simply been too busy to notice. Although literature is not a panacea, it can offer the understanding doctors and patients yearn for through the use of image, metaphor, beauty, and epiphany. Medical students and seasoned physicians would do well to read this book. In it, Coles reminds us of the mimetic power of stories and the lessons they teach, again and again.”The New England Journal of Medicine, 11-22-90

Seems to me, that anyone going into the field of medicine or currently there should read read the book reviewed by The New England Journal of Medicine in 1990: The Call of Stories: Teaching and the moral imagination. It should be required reading.

Here is a great article to read when you have time: An Enlivening Heritage: Reintroducing Robert Coles















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