Martin Robert Coles was born in Boston, MA on October 12, 1929. His father Philip was an Englishman. His mother Sandra Young Coles was from Sioux City, Iowa. He has one brother William Allan, two years and three days later.
"An early memory of mine has my mother smiling as she thanked the postman for her monthly copy of The Catholic Worker: the newspaper Dorthoy Day founded in the 1930s....Often I'd hear my mother read an editorial or a featured essay or one of Dorothy Day's reflective columns to my father...Their discussions still live in my mind, as does my mother's eagerness to extend herself on behalf of others in a quiet, undassuming, generous manner."
"I am still loyal to many of my parents' values - their preference for novels and short stories as a means of moral and social (and yes, political) reflection ... I can still remember my father's words ....that novels contain "reservoirs of wisdom out of which he and my mother were drinking."
Coles attended high school at Boston Latin School from 1940 - 1946. At Latin School he played tennis, ran track and edited the school literary magazine. After graduating from Boston Latin, he was accepted at Harvard College. At Harvard he majored in English and studied with Professor Perry Miller. He wrote a thesis on several sections of William Carlos William's poem "Patterson". He sent the paper to Williams who offered his critique of the paper and invited Coles to visit him if he ever was in New Jersey. William Carlos Williams practised medicine in addition to writing. Coles visited Williams who made a great impression on him. As a result when he returned to Harvard he took premedical courses. With the help of William Carlos Willams Coles entered medical school at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
At first Robert Coles studied pediatrics, later he switched to child psychiatry. In 1955 during one of his medical residencies he worked with children stricken with polio.
"I had gone to medical school with the intention of becoming a pediatrician; had taken post-graduate training in order to become one; had decided to become a child psychiatrist, instead, after working with boys and girls who were sick with leukemia and polio, and who wanted so very much not only to be "treated" by a doctor, but to talk with him, ask questions of him, try with him to figure out what mattered much, what mattered little, and why..."
In 1958 to fufill his military service, he joined the Air Force and served as chief of neuropsyciatric services at Keesler Hospital in Biloxi, Mississippi.
In 1960 he married Jane Hallowell, a graduate of Radcliffe College and a high school teacher of English and history. His first child Robert Emmet was born on August 21, 1964. His second son, Daniel Agee was born on August 15, 1966. His third son Michael Hallowell was born on July 7, 1970. He lived in the South from 1960 until 1965.
In 1965 he was a teaching fellow in Erik H. Erikson's course at Harvard "The Human Life Cycle". In 1966 he was appointed lecturer in General Education at Harvard. At this time he began a correspondence with Anna Freud. During this time he published numerous articles and books. In 1973 he received the Pulitzer Prize for volumes two and three of Children of Crisis.
"I left hospitals, clinics, and the possibility of private practice because I wanted to see, firsthand, how children I might not otherwise get to know managed the particular stresses that poverty and racism generate....But I did not lose interest in the clinical side of psychiatry; I never stopped taking a strong interest in what certain psychiatrists and pychoanalysts have had to say."
Dr. Coles was appointed Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Harvard Medical School in 1977. He began teaching the General Education course "The Literture of Social Reflection" at Harvard College.
"For the last decade I have taught courses for college students and those in graduate school as well. I started doing so in a modest way. I'd come back east from a two-year stint in New Mexico, where I'd gotten to know Indian and Spanishspeaking children. I was writing up the results of that study when a friend who was a Harvard administrator suggested I teach a seminar for freshmen at his college. He had in mind a course devoted to social science inquiry of the kind I had been doing in the American South and West, but I hastened to tell him I would much rather have the students read Agee's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Orwell's Down and Out in London and Paris, than any series of sociological texts. He liked the idea, and I started a seminar in the "literary documentatry tradition," looking at the way novelists and poets write about certian social and political issues. In 1978 I began teaching a course titled " A Literature of Social Reflection". ...We read fiction in hopes of doing moral and social inquiry".
"I work at Harvard as a teacher,....I love working with the students, learning with them as I try to be a teacher - give lectures or be the leader of a seminar. I especially love talking with certain students who come to my office for an old-fashioned bull session: what the devil does this life mean, and how the devil ought we try to live it?
In 1981 Dr. Robert Coles was a member of the first group of MacArthur Prize Fellows. In 1989 Dr. Coles was named Visiting Professor of Psychiatry, Dartmouth Medical School. He helped establish the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
In recent years Dr. Coles has collaborated on a number of books with photographers, including the book Schools which includes interviews and photographs of students at Boston Latin School. He is also the editor of a DoubleTake magazine, which advertises the contents of its pages as "inspired writing and photography that will change the way you see the world".
"I sat there feeling a sudden surge of respect for him. I also felt that he had taught me a lot about the Boston Latin School I attended, about myself t here and then as a student, and maybe even about some who teach there now, or attend the school in these last years of the twentieth century..."
His latest book The Secular Mind has just been published by Princeton University Press.