January 15, 1998
University Gazette


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  Robert Coles Wins Medal of Freedom

By William J. Cromie

Gazette Staff

Robert Coles, professor of psychiatry and medical humanities, will receive the nation's highest civilian honor in a ceremony at the White House today. He and 14 other distinguished Americans will be awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Clinton.

The medal honors those who have made special contributions to the welfare of the nation and its people. Coles, 68, won for his work with underprivileged children and his writings about how children experience the world. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author and an adviser to former President John F. Kennedy, Coles was recognized as one of the country's top creative geniuses by a MacArthur Foundation award in 1981.

Coles also is the Agee Professor of Social Ethics at the Graduate School of Education. Jerome Murphy, Dean of the School, commented that the medal "is a wonderful recognition for someone who has done pioneering work with children, and who has done a wonderful job of putting forth the voice of children in his books."

When asked how he felt about the award, Coles, typically, excluded any reference to his own accomplishments. "I've been extremely lucky to know and work with children in this and other countries for most of my life," he said. "I've tried to focus on those who are isolated from the professional knowledge and experience of people like myself -- the poorest and most disadvantaged kids. I urge the pediatricians I know, and the medical students I teach, to do the same.

"The fact that I have been honored for this," he continued, "acknowledges the importance that President and Mrs. Clinton place on children. I am grateful to them and feel privileged to be in the company of the other distinguished medal winners."

The other medalists include civil rights leaders Arnold Aronson and James Farmer, friends of Coles and men he admires.

Another honoree with Harvard ties is Elliot Richardson '41, '47 LLB, who served in four Cabinet posts, as well as ambassador to Britain, U.S. attorney general, and Harvard Overseer in 1968-70 and 1974-80.

A National Treasure

Born in Boston, Coles received an A.B. from Harvard in 1950 and an M.D. from Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1954. He was a resident in psychiatry at Massachusetts General, McLean and Children's hospitals. In 1957-58, he became a teaching fellow in psychiatry at the Medical School.

While in the Air Force in 1958-60, Coles worked with children in the South who suffered from the stress of desegregation conflicts. After military service, he joined Harvard's University Health Services as a research psychiatrist, a post he still holds.

In 1977, the Medical School named him professor of psychiatry and medical humanities. In 1995, he filled a newly established position as Agee Professor of Social Ethics at the School of Education. However, Coles' courses know no school boundaries; he has taught at Harvard College, the Schools of business, medicine, education, and law, and the Extension School.

"He's an extraordinary teacher," says Dean Murphy of the School of Education. He combines a wonderful breadth of knowledge with a tremendous passion for his subject. What strikes you is how deeply committed he is to telling the story of kids who deal with poverty and social injustice. Students find him captivating."

Coles has written more than 55 books and 1,200 articles and essays. Many of these works are nontechnical and written with great feeling for the children he has met. His five volumes of Children of Crisis won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. Other books explore the meanings of children's drawings, and how children acquire morals and religious values.

"His writings give voice to the powerful moral, spiritual, and philosophical concerns of children all over the world," Murphy says.

In a review last year of his latest book, The Moral Intelligence of Children, the noted educator and sociologist Amitai Etzioni referred to Coles as "a national treasure." He will be honored as such today.


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College