Observer of Humankind

INTELLECT AND SPIRIT: THE LIFE AND WORK OF ROBERT COLES by Bruce A. Ronda, New York: Continuum, 216 pp., $18.95

HARVARD professor Robert Coles is a gentle but persistent iconoclast, and a gifted observer of humankind. This book is an articulate literary portrait by an admitted, though not uncritical, fan.

Bruce Ronda, a former Fulbright scholar and professor of American Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, identifies Coles under several guises: social psychologist, literary critic, child psychiatrist, student of politics and culture, man of faith, teacher, and outsider who craves community.

Best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning five-volume work, ``Children of Crisis,'' Coles is impatient with questions about his ``method,'' and he scorns the conventional tactics and tools of the social sciences. Coles also wants nothing to do with modern pop psychology and its insistence on the importance of self-fulfillment.

Coles listens to ordinary people; then he tries to let truth speak for itself through the words of his interviewees. He doesn't just report, however; he fashions his material much as a storyteller would. Indeed, Coles takes guidance as much from the poets and novelists he reveres as from his professional training and instincts. ``The writers Coles admires insist that their work is not fantasy, not artifice, but the very stuff of human life arranged into art without losing any of its gritty authenticity.''

``Intellect and Spirit'' links Coles with his various heros, heroines, and teachers, including the physician-poet William Carlos Williams and writers of fiction such as Flannery O'Conner and Walker Percy. Ronda lines up the thinkers who have had the most effect on Coles and explains who they were and the main themes of their thought. The author then shows how they have affected his subject's life and thought. In a few cases, Ronda questions Cole's enthusiasm. He puzzles, for example, over how appropriate it is to admire Simone Weil, the French intellectual and social activist of the 1930s and '40s. Did not Weil too much flee the world and hate her own body?

From his studies of the children of many cultures and races, including black and white children during the early days of school integration, to his current study of the spirituality of children, Coles seeks, says Ronda, to be ``an archivist, a genealogist for the voiceless.'' In the end, however, Ronda identifies Coles as ``an artist in lives. He is a social documentarist, a shaper of complex lives into narrative patterns.''

Time after time, Coles includes in his books his concern for the religious and spiritual issues in the lives of the people he writes about, the poor as well as the middle class and the wealthy. And time after time reviewers ignore this aspect of Cole's work. Yet to do so, says Ronda, is to miss a major dimension of the personality of Coles and a major aspect of his concerns.

``Intellect and Spirit'' offers the reader not only a look at one of today's most perceptive observers of children, their parents, and cultures. It also presents an opportunity to examine one's own convictions on such fundamental issues as the relationship between affluence and poverty, solitude and community, and religious, economic, and political dogmas and personal morality.

The reader may have one regret. Ronda explains that his first chapter deals with ``the main events of Cole's life.'' Even in a brief biographical profile, the reader has a right to a well-constructed overview of the subject's life story. Unfortunately, this foundational chapter is disjointed and the author ignores at least one ``main event.''

Ronda mentions only in passing that Coles is married and has children (three sons). He then compounds the oversight by acknowledging, in later chapters, that Jane Coles has made key contributions to her husband's work. If this is so, should one not expect to learn at least as much about Mrs. Coles and her influence on her husband as one learns about other major influences, such as Soren Kierkegaard and Dorothy Day?

But the final word is this: ``Intellect and Spirit'' is a lively, entertaining, informative look at the life and work of Robert Coles, who writes books and articles about issues that matter to just about everyone.

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