Interviewed at Concord-Carlisle High School, May 26, 1992
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Sponsored by the Concord Public Schools Human Sexuality Community Advisory Council.
Click here for audio in .mp3 format
I was educated as a English major in college and I wrote my thesis on the first two books of William Carlos Williams' long five-volume poem "Paterson." I might have become a high school English teacher here if I hadn't written that because that was sort of where I was headed when I was in college. I sent it off to him. He was a physician as well as a poet and novelist and short story writer. I sent it off to him and got back on a prescription a little note from him. I'm now told this little piece of paper is worth hundreds of dollars but I wouldn't sell it to anyone. "W.C. Williams, MD, 9 Ridge Road, Rutherford, New Jersey, and his phone number was not a lot of numbers first but it was RUT-then four numbers. Dear Mr. Coles, Thank you very much for your thesis. It was not bad -- for a Harvard student. If you're ever in the neighborhood, please drop by." Well, a week later I was in New York calling from the bus terminal and his wife Flossie asked me to come over so I took the bus to Rutherford. He came home about 15 minutes after I got there having done his medical rounds in Paterson. He had a large practice amongst the poor working class people of that industrial New Jersey city. Most of his patients, as a matter of fact, were children. For those of you who are interested in some of his responses to this hectic practice, there are these wonderful stories called "The Doctor Stories," which have been pulled together, which I'm sure the Concord bookstore has.
He had supper and I sat with him, and then he wanted to know if I wanted to go out with him and meet some of his patients, and I did. We drove back to Paterson, not an easy drive then as there was no New Jersey turnpike. I saw him at work with children, he was older than I am now, but he was still able to sit on the floor with them. There are some continuities in this life. He carried in his pocket some of those Hershey kisses which looked exactly the way they do now with the same foil and the little piece of paper to open them. He'd feed the children, he'd bargain with them, and he'd treat them, and sometimes he would get into arguments with their parents. It was from him that I first learned something about the moral life of children. In a didactic way he pointed out to me how concerned the children were about him. How they would often comment on how tired he was, and they worried about him. They told him to take good care of himself. I was interested in that. I met one of them who was concerned about him because she was eight years old and she remembered that the last time she'd met him, he'd had a bad cold. She still remembered to ask him about that cold.
I was so moved and touched and inspired and turned on, as they would say these days, by him that I went back and started taking pre-med courses, which was not an easy job for me. The result is that I then went on to medical school and went into pediatrics. While I was doing pediatrics, we had a polio epidemic, one of the last this country would ever see, just as the Salk vaccine was about to come into use in the late '50s. There I met children who were paralyzed, many of them in iron lungs which we certainly don't have these days. They had a kind of polio called bulbar polio that affected the brain stem, the breathing center. There I met children who were ill with every prospect of continuing to be ill, and while I was trying to take care of them medically, they were quite interested in asking me questions of a kind that Job asked in the Old Testament - why did this happen to me and what did I ever do to deserve this and what is this life about anyway when people like me going about my business get sick this way? These questions were profoundly introspective and profoundly moral in nature. Some of them made pacts of sort with fate, if they got better they would live differently. I would ask of them, not in a particularly psychiatric mode but just out of curiosity in the way one makes conversations with people, "How would they live better?" Then they would tell me that they would be more concerned and respectful to their parents, to their friends, they wouldn't be as mean-spirited as they knew that they had occasionally been and on and on went this recital of moral self-scrutiny in the Augustinian tradition almost.
Then I met a few children who had leukemia in the Children's Hospital, who then were destined for death because we didn't know what we know now and had no chemotherapy. I will never forget some of these children, preparing not only themselves to die but their families that they would be leaving them. And in their own way, their doctors. Some of them knew a lot more about what was happening to them then we gave them credit for knowing, and some of them were a lot better able to take what was happening to them then some of us were. And some of them were profoundly reflective about this life and were able to seize upon its important moments and remember them even as they prepared to leave. I remember talking with one of my pediatric tutors of sorts, an elderly pediatrician who was willing to spend a lot of time with us, and he pointed out to us that sometimes even one and two year old children have what he called a capacity for empathy. They can hear a child crying and themselves begin crying or look towards the child with a pained and worried expression. I'm sure many of you know that within your own family lives. Even the youngest pre-verbal children can almost as an aspect of their humanity respond to suffering. Not all children, of course. It is also true unfortunately that children even who are six months old or a year old or a year and a half can be very cool and aloof and suspicious and even mean-spirited and angry - truculent. Having been mistreated, they know how to be angry and worse even, to bite, to kick, to refuse any kind of normal friendly relationship with the world that lasts for any length of time.
Now this is not totally new knowledge to us, the kind that I was observing. We are living in the 20th century and in a way it can be said that this century psychologically began in the year 1900 when Sigmund Freud published the interpretation of dreams. Now psychoanalysis informs our lives in ways we often don't even think about, but it has been a major influence of course in the 20th century western world, its insights into the human mind. And then there is child psychoanalysis which was almost single- handedly begun by Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud's daughter, in the '20s and by Eric Erickson after her and Peter Blos and others. Viennese men and women, who you might be interested in knowing, were originally teachers. Anna Freud was a school teacher, an elementary school teacher before she began first her analysis with his father and then the whole field of child psychoanalysis. And Eric Erickson was an artist and a school teacher and so was Peter Blos and August Eichorn, so there was an intimacy between teachers and psychoanalysis at the very beginning of all this kind of investigative work in Vienna and elsewhere in Europe. A lot of those people because of Hitler came to this country in the '30s to Boston and New York and were very much a presence in the Massachusetts General Hospital and in the Children's Hospital as they were in the major hospitals in other cities in this country.
When I went into child psychiatry and then psychoanalysis myself, I put in a lot of time with children, and was supervised by some of the older European analysts. I got to know particularly Eric Erickson and taught in his course when he came to Harvard. What I began to learn from them is how sensitive children are, not only to family life, to mothers and fathers, to brothers and sisters, and this is surely common knowledge, but how sensitive they are, of course, to the classrooms, school room, the neighborhood, and very important of course, to the kids they play with on the streets. And very important too to the values of any particular community.
Now let us remember that when psychoanalysis emerged it was immediately feared as a dangerous kind of ideology. Many times I heard Anna Freud comment with an ironic look backward how angry people got at her and her coworkers for the kind of work they were doing with children. And yet she pointed out interestingly enough, there are many ways in which psychoanalysis connects with the traditional Judeo-Christian view of children.
What did Anna Freud and Eric Erickson notice as they began to work very carefully with children? They began to notice that children who are three or four are full of all kinds of impulsiveness. They began to notice, by the way, what you notice, many of you as parents, but that slowly they learn discipline and control presumably if they are given half a chance to by their parents and indeed encouraged to by their parents. And by the time that they get to school, and they coined a phrase for it, they are in what they called the "latency period." What did they mean by that? Many of you, all of you now I presume know what they meant by that. They meant that a good deal of the emotional energies and tensions including the sexual energies and tensions, the strong interest in family life, in origins, in how babies are made, this is slowly but relentlessly put aside as they go to school and take on the tasks of civilization. They had all sorts of words for these so called defense mechanisms, and I'm not going to get into technical psychoanalysis here, but a lot of these words have become every day language for people who have no particular training or interest in training in psychoanalysis, repression, suppression, whatever. A lot is put aside by children and necessarily so as they as children attend to what - they attend to learning and they become part of the society of which control is very important.
A well known book that Bruno Bettleheim wrote years ago,"Love is Not Enough", you bet it isn't. In fact as he goes on to point out, is it love if a child is not taught before even coming to school, self-discipline, control, can't be used too often that word, restraint, in the interests of what? In the interests of some kind of harmony in this world. This society does not function when instinct has free reign. We have to put on the brakes don't we in our automobiles, and in our talking with one another, and in our behavior, so that what comes to mind is not by any means necessarily given expression, we have to pay attention to what the laws of the world ask of us. We have to learn how to control ourselves, we have to learn how to keep our mouths shut, we have to learn how to have some control over the instincts in our bodies, and indeed children who lack this soon enough, if they are that much lacking, are going to be in difficulties in school, at home, and ultimately going to be seeing a doctor.
This is not very surprising for me to tell you this here tonight, but it is important to be remembered, very important. For a long while psychoanalysis was interpreted as the basis for what - expression. Express yourself - that's what's healthy. So what's on your mind, talk it out. Well, how long are we going to have a society if everyone is expressing himself or herself saying what is on his or her mind and giving full reign to anything and everything that comes to mind, and to body I might add.
As for the moral life, I would see some of that on the streets in New Orleans. I went into the Air Force for two years, all of us had to do so under the old doctor's draft. I was in charge of a 48 bed psychiatric hospital in Biloxi, Mississippi and my life changed because one day I saw a mob, two or three times larger than all of us in this room now, in front of the school building screaming bloody murder because a little girl was being brought there by some federal marshals. This was school desegregation in 1961 in New Orleans, 30 years ago. I could be here all evening telling you about what I got to know.
Instead of leaving that military base and coming back here, I stayed there. I got to meet that little girl, Ruby Bridges. If you want to see her in "Eyes on the Prize," she's in the second segment, she's shown walking in the school escorted by federal marshals. I spent a long time getting to meet and know this little girl and marveling at her capacity to go to school all by herself in a totally boycotted school. One child, one school, one teacher for a whole year with a mob there in the morning and in the afternoon telling her they were going to kill her. One of the highlights of that experience for me with her was finding out from her school teacher and then from her herself how she prayed for people who wanted to kill her. -We all found this out because one day when the marshals brought her to school, she stopped in front of this mob. They were always anxious to get her in. The police were not protecting this girl at all, the police were protecting the mob, and the federal judge who ordered her to go into that school in accordance with the Supreme Court ruling had to be gotten out of the city himself because of the mob. This little girl stopped in front of the mob, and the school teacher looking out the window of the school saw her talking. By now both the school teacher and I are waiting for a psychological collapse having this kind of education, coming from a poor family, they didn't know how to read or write, they were utterly vulnerable, socially, economically, racially, educationally, you name it. The school teacher was puzzled by the fact that this girl seemed so friendly and so anxious to learn, she ate well and slept well and studied hard.
I'd treated lots of kids in Boston before I went into the Air Force who came from well-to-do white families, some of them going even to private schools and didn't notice that all those advantages prevented them from getting all kinds of psychiatric disorders. Here was a little girl who had no advantages at all and she seemed to be having trouble getting sick. So we waited and then we thought we had something because she stopped in front of the mob and they went berserk and the marshals had to draw their guns. When she came into the school room, the teacher said "What happened to you today, Ruby?" And she said, "Nothing." The teacher said, "Well, why did you stop in front of that crowd and start talking to them?" Ruby said, "Well, I didn't say anything to them." The teacher decided as all too many teachers do decide not to pursue this any longer, she would defer it to higher authority.
Possessed of higher authority, I went that evening with my wife to talk to Ruby as we were doing twice a week. I asked this little girl what had happened that morning, and she said "Nothing." Well, you know what words like denial mean. They've been part and parcel of getting on these days, using such words. I asked her how she was doing. She said fine. I asked her what had happened that morning, and she said again "Nothing." I said, "Well, Ruby, something happened. Your teacher told me that something happened." She said, "Well, nothing happened really." I said, "Well, what did happen?" She said, "Well, that mob got all upset." I said, "Why did they get upset?" She said, "Well, I think because I stopped for a while." So I said, "Why did you stop?" So she said, "I stopped to say a prayer." I said, "Why did you stop to say a prayer?" She said, "Well, because I forgot." I said, "What did you forget?" She said, "I forgot to say it where I should've." This was a six-year old girl. Well, she had an arrangement I found out with the federal marshals that she usually said a prayer a couple of blocks before the school, and she had forgotten and she saw the mob and saw the school and started praying. In my head, I start thinking of all these defensive maneuvers that are going on in her head and I'm probing, asking, listening, figuring out. So I said, "Well, Ruby, what do you mean you stopped and said a prayer, couldn't you have waited." She said, "I could have, but I just thought of it and I thought I would." I said, "Did you have to say the prayer?" She said, "I like to say prayers." I said, "Are you doing a lot of praying these days?" She said, "A lot." She told me that she prayed in the morning and she prayed while going to school, she prayed on the way home, and she prayed at night. I said, "That's a lot of praying that you are doing." She repeated that she liked to pray. So I said, "Why did you pray right there?" I went back to that scene. She said, "Well, I saw the people and I thought I'd say a prayer. I said my prayer for them." I said, "You said a prayer for THEM?" She said, "Oh, yes." I said, "Why would you want to pray for them?" There was a pause, she looked at me and she said, "Well, don't you think they need praying for?" I looked at her and thought I'm not going to let her get away with this. Time has come for me to push. I said, "Well, Ruby, they may need praying for but they say all these awful things to you, terrible things, why would you want to pray for them?" She said, "Well, I'm the one who hears what they say."
Well that made a little sense, but I thought to myself how does she really feel. What's going on underneath where all truth resides, so all too many people think. So I thought well I'll help her to talk more about this, isn't that what we're supposed to do in this century, get people to talk more about things, be better for them so we say. So I said, "Well, Ruby, its true, you do hear what they haVe to say. You're the one who knows them pretty well, but what they say is pretty awful and I'm still wondering whether you really feel like praying for them as much as you are praying for them or whether you don't have some other feelings." She said, "Well, I don't like them but I sure think I ought to pray for them." I thought I would ask her what she says in these prayers. So I said, "What do you say in these prayers?" She said, "I always say the same prayer." She told me what she had been saying now for months. She said, "Well, I say, please God try to forgive those people because they don't know what they're doing."
I stood there in that kitchen and I thought to myself this has been said before, in the history of the world this has been said before. I said, "Ruby, why do you say that?" Then she explained it to me, talk about the moral life of children. She said, "Well, you know, when Jesus had that mob in front of him, that's what he said to God." So I said, "Ruby, did you get any help in thinking about what you might be saying in this prayer." She said, "My mommy told me a story of how Jesus lived and my grandma did, and I'm going to try and do the best I can and I'm going to try and talk the way he did." That's what she said. You take a careful medical psychiatric recitational history of this family, the mother and father didn't know how to read or write, couldn't even sign their names. They'd come from the delta of Mississippi, they'd been in New Orleans only three years and yet they knew by heart the Galilean sayings of an itinerant rabbi/teacher/healer/preacher. They knew about the prophetic teachings of Israel. They knew who Isaiah was and Jeremiah and Amos, knew by heart some of those moments from prophetic Judaism and they had educated their daughter in this. You know what my wife said to me when we left that house, we went to a bar in downtown New Orleans, still around called the Napoleon House, good drinks and nice music. My wife was sitting opposite me as I well remember and she said "Tell me what would you do if you had to go into the Harvard faculty club and there was a mob waiting for you every time you went there?" Well, I answered back, "I sure wouldn't pray for the mob. I'm much too educated and psychoanalyzed to do anything like that. I'd call the cops." Ruby's family didn't even have a telephone and they certainly didn't have the notion that the police were going to pay any attention to a telephone call even if they had the money to put a telephone in their home.
The next thing I would do, my wife and I figured is after calling the cops, get a lawyer. Well, Ruby's family had no lawyer. Actually, I found out I was the first doctor she had met, she was delivered by her great-aunt. She'd never had a pediatrican to take care of her. No lawyers for Ruby and her family.
The third thing I would do would be to mobilize all the authority of the social sciences and psychology and all those ologies. I'd talk about the psycho-sexual this, and the socio-cultural that, all those hyphenated expressions, they're wonderful. They show how smart we are. Maybe I'd escalate a bit and say these people are sick. They have character disorders. You hear us talk a lot about character -disorders, what's character, that we don't talk about so much. Character disorders. That's a serious charge.
My wife and I spent a whole weekend in the Waldorf Astoria listening to the American Psychoanalytic Association discuss acting out. We left the place and we were walking the streets of Manhattan and my wife said to me, "Tell me, I have a question. What is the difference between acting out and living?" That's what we would call a methodological question. Well, we can even finally call those people crazy with some psychiatric authority on the streets. Ruby had none of this language, no language of psychology, psychiatry or psychoanalysis or anthropology or the social sciences.
The fourth thing, of course, I would do would be to write an article about what I was going through. Ruby had yet to learn how to write. All she knew how to do was pray for forgiveness for people who told her they wanted to kill her.
I'll tell you when you meet a child, and I've met more than one, you carry right back to this town of Concord and to the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson and to his American Scholar address delivered in 1837 at the Harvard Divinity School, and they never invited him back, because in that address he made a very important distinction, one I think that's not inappropriate to make right here, right now - the distinction between character and intellect. That all the intellect in the world, all the knowledge in the world, all the charts in the world, all the erudition in the world is by no means even going to begin to help us to take the long road down that will led us toward character, good of heart and mind.
of course, that brought me also back to my great hero, William Carlos Williams because in "Paterson" he pounds away at this relentlessly, no ideas but in things in concreteness of life and he goes on to remind himself, let alone his readers, that you can be very smart and not necessarily a good person, as Emerson, above all, in American Letters insisted and set the stage for further insistence from the part of writers and thinkers who would follow him. Of course, Williams knew Ezra Pound very well. They'd known one another from their early 20s in Philadelphia when Williams was going to medical school and Pound was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. Pound, great poet, brilliantly educated, consumed by hate. Williams knew what we have been discovering now in dribbles for 50 years that it was possible in Nazi Germany for the most brilliant people to be consumed by hate. Philosophers such as Heidecker could embrace Hitler, psychoanalysts such as Yahn, physicians, lawyers, college professors, teachers of philosophy, biologists, you name them, all that knowledge in no way gave immunity to hate.
So moral life is not to be confused with moral analysis. Going through high school, college, graduate school, Joseph Goebbels, one of the top three Nazis and an intimate of Hitler's, had a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Heidelberg. I remember Williams telling me that on the way back from seeing one of his patients. He said "Don't forget that, young man." So when I walk through Harvard Square sometimes, I think of it and so do my students.
One of them came to see me a couple of years ago and had gotten two A's in two moral reasoning courses, now well known core curriculum. He came to talk to me and he said, "You know, I got these A's, but I'm not a very good person." I said, "Oh, come on, you're being a little hard on yourself." That kind of reflex comes out of mouths like mine perhaps a little too often - the glib of psychological reassurance of this age. Well, he went on to tell me about some of the things he had done, I began to lose my certainty about whether he did or did not deserve this, and finally he persuaded me that what he really needed was a good, swift kick in the pants and more. Brilliant, and a mean-spirited character.
It so happened that I knew a young woman who had every bit of knowledge about him. She had come to Harvard from South Bend, Indiana, but her father did not teach at Notre Dame. She said she was sick and tired of people asking her what her father teaches at Notre Dame. Her father worked in a factory. She was poor. She got a job cleaning up rooms at Harvard, and his room was one of them. She'd go into the room and they would never give her the time of day, they were too busy with themselves, talking about themselves, bragging about themselves, planning their lives. She said, "It's awfully hard to come into a room and not even be acknowledged with a hello or a goodbye." So I said, "Well, you're reading about an invisible man in my course and there it is. That's what Ellison meant, this isn't only race or class or gender, it's the way we are with one another, unfortunately. All too many of us even in this big-shot place, maybe especially in this big-shot place, where it was once said 'the last should be first and the first shall be last', and maybe that's what we're discovering here, even if it isn't written in one of the buildings in this particular institution, why would they write it." But in any event, one day one of them paid attention to her. HE paid attention to her. He was ready for action, condoms and all. She got how do we say it in our clinical world, hysterical.
Every once in a while I get sick and tired of that kind of thinking and I've been encouraged.by people like Anna Freud to say they are sick and tired of it too. I heard her once at a conference at Hampstead say "It's all very well to understand all these moments but what matters, what truly matters, is the worth and dignity of a life and how it is lived consciously, never mind the unconscious that we happen to probe." Consciously, this character had been a scoundrel, and she was very upset and why shouldn't she be. She was ready to quit the university and go back home. I said to her, "Well, if this place has taught you nothing else but that someone who is smart, clever and writes brilliant editorials for the newspapers in the college, expresses all the time his compassion for the South Africa blacks thousands of miles away, can treat you this way, that you've learned a hell of a lot." She didn't like that and I can understand why. What she wanted to look at is how all of us are trained to think a solid, healthy, vigorous young man who could have passed any course given here in anything, English, Latin, math, and I might add, the psychological test, healthy sexuality, knew it all, was basically a cruel, cheap, ignorant person.
You see all these charts about moral development in children, boy do they come with those charts. The ladders marching people up to the highest form of moral development. What do they mean? They mean that some psychologist comes and asks children about moral scenarios and gets answers. They mean that Ruby would definitely be on the lowest rung of that developmental scheme, preconventional. Absolutely right, wouldn't have the slightest idea how to answer some of these moral dilemmas. Didn't know who Immanuel Kant was, how lucky she was. Didn't know who this one or that one is, only knew how to pray for people who wanted to kill her. She knew some other things too, she once gave me a little lecture at the age of eight on how Jesus lived. I said, "How did he live?" She said, "Well, you know he was a poor man, all his friends were poor too. They were fishermen and they worked in the land, and he was always worrying about people who were hurting and having troubles, and he took pity on everyone, even people who were very unpopular." Nevertheless, only preconventional.
You get some more courses, you get older, you can answer the questions better, no question about it. These strategies for the evaluation of moral development really are intellectual strategies to figure out the capacity of the intellect to do moral analysis. Not that even that will help you to get to the top stage which is called postconventional. Don't think just anyone gets in there. Ghandi is put in there, Dr. King integrated it. The Cambridge theorists who figured this out no doubt include themselves in this, and if they are friendly toward their neighbors, maybe they'll slip some of their neighbors in it, but most people kind of work their way up but not to the top.
I don't know how high Ruby is. I can picture someone doing all kinds of tests on her and finding out if maybe she answered this hypothetical scenario that way, she's not up to par. What she was up to was in her behavior, her conduct, experience, that's where these experts have to pull back or ought to pull back at it being quite possible for me to come here this evening and give you the fanciest lecture imaginable full of statements, pronouncements, bring out the blackboard, announce all the theories. Don't even call them theories, call them facts. We tend to do that all too often. Self-promotion is not totally beyond our capacity. To do that and walk out of this high school and be what kind of a human being? Who knows! Who knows! How do we find out?
What I'm trying to tell you this evening is that there is a lot more to moral life than espousals, than knowledge. If one of the great moral philosophers of Germany, Heidecker could hold hands with Hitler and the Nazis for ten long years, then I ask you how are we going to save ourselves? We are going to save ourselves in how we behave with one another, and it is a life long challenge, isn't it for each and every one of us? It is quite possible for children even elementary school children to be blessed with a kind of thoughtfulness and moral sensitivity that is remarkable even as it is possible for plenty of us who are known as teachers or psychologists or psychiatrists or experts to be not very nice people. Not very nice people!
This is the kind of irony that a writer such as George Eliot or Tolstoy or Chekhov or Dickens knew all the time. Some of these ironies escape us in the social sciences, so anxious are we to hand down declarations. This is what is true or right or ought be done, or that. Boy, are we sure of ourselves. Very sure, at times all too sure.
I will tell you now speaking simply as a father and a fellow human being, where do children get their moral lives, don't we all know - from those with whom they live. And they get their moral life not by what's said to them, but how life is lived around them, don't they? Whether we are courteous to one another and thoughtful, or whether we care not very much. I'll tell you if a child is lacking in that kind of moral experience, we need Ruby's prayers for that child or those adults, don't we? In the home, mothers and fathers, in the neighborhood, but especially in the home. It being one thing, by the way, to talk a big line, it being another thing to live out a life. In the home, and not through courses, but through the everyday experiences that are utterly either redemptive or all too damning.
I spent a couple of days at Phillips Exeter a few years ago and the vice principal taught chemistry, and I'll never forget, she said, "I can tell about the character of these children, not by testing them, not by asking them all kinds of psychological questions, I just watch how they behave in the chemistry lab. Some of them will come in and they have knives in their elbows, they're out to get rid of anyone and everyone. Only themselves do they care about. Others will come in and they'll see someone in trouble and they'll stop their own work and they'll reach out to help. I feel like taking that person and driving that person down to you people in Cambridge and say here's the person to take at Harvard. I don't care what your test scores are. Here's someone with character." Well, we've yet to reach that kind of civilization that we respond to that teacher. But boy did she know something. We are ultimately as we behave. How do we learn how to behave honorably and decently, I can't repeat it too often, through the knowledge we obtain not from lectures and courses but out of love conveying impassioned messages here is how we must be and furthermore here is how we are in this family and let us hope and pray in other families too.
You're struggling with the matter of sexuality. Let me tell you, let me tell you. Sexuality that lives in a life that does not have moral strength lived out is utterly it's own boss. Don't we know that. How do we learn the authority of a moral life, whether it be in connection with sexuality or aggressiveness or all the other forms of instinctive behavior that we are capable of given permission, given abdication. It's not all that hard for children to know control if they have lived a life in which they have been attended to and learned what control means, its pleasures, its possibilities. Without it we are at the mercy, as Anna Freud once put it, of the anarchy of drives. It therefore seems to me very important that in our schools and in our homes we understand the importance not only of affection of children and courtesy toward children but their need to join this world, to be part of it, to know how to say no as well as yes, to know how to put aside as well as to embrace. Years of work go into this at home. Years of work go into this at school. It is our responsibility it seems to me to stand firm, stand firm for values. Not values clarification, but values. Rights as against wrongs.
The Supreme Court may have taken the Bible out of our public schools but at no time has the Supreme Court told us that we can't teach our children in these public schools, values. You say what kind of values can we teach our children that all groups will respect, and I say the answer to that is so easy that it is fascinating how hard this answer seems to be for some people to understand. You ask what are those values. I say is anyone going to oppose values such as considerateness, thoughtfulness, respect for others, courtesy, politeness, an ability to put oneself in the shoes of others, the golden rule, and all kinds of values that are offered us by the way by writer after writer after writer, whether it be George Eliot or Dickens, in this high school I hope and pray, or Mark Twain or Salinger or whatever. Values through poems.
I remember the 5th grade experience I had, I'll never forget it. A certain teacher named Miss Avery, I've memorialized her in a poem I wrote. She would come into that class and she'd slam the ruler down on her desk and we were running around and she would say "Sit down, shut up, take out your books." Then if we were lagging behind she would say, "Be human beings." Now if we hesitated too long she'd take us into what was called "the cloak room." These days you would probably be hauled before a judge for child abuse. But she swatted us when we were obnoxious. When I went home and told my mother about this, my mother said, "Thank God." I don't think I was scarred. Quite the contrary. What I began to learn was that this teacher really meant business. I remember her crying when she talked to us about Abraham Lincoln. She wanted us to know what this man was like and what his Presidency meant. She brought him to life, and she used his life as a means to inform our lives. Then she would read to us from certain poets. I remember her reading a line and she would write it on the board "Have a heart that never hardens, a temper that never tries, and a touch that never hurts." Then she would tell us that it's awfully hard to live up to that and that as we knew she didn't, but that she would like to try and she wanted us to try. Pretty soon she had us with her in a morally energetic classroom using history, literature, personal anecdotes, stories to awaken us to our moral responsibilities to one another, and here I am, old as can be it seems, remembering her and never forgetting what that classroom was about and grateful to her for what that meant. I carried some of that with me home.
I think we can continue to do this in the schools even as we must do it in the homes. I remember my mother and father very clearly punishing my brother and me for behavior they felt was wrong directed at other children, and at times apologizing to parents of other children. It's hard to do when you are a parent, hard to do. We have pride. Pride goes before the fall. Both the Old and New Testaments remind us about pride. Nowadays we call it narcissism, don't we. The culture of narcissism. Plenty of that around. Plenty of preoccupation with the self. The self, the self and more of the self - I feel like this; this is what it means to me; I hear where you're coming from, and all that gobbledygook. Psychological gobbledygook. All true uncritically accepted I regret in the schools. I remember when I was a second year resident being given the title of a mental health consultant to the schools of Newton. My wife who had been teaching school for a few years said, "What do you know about schools?" I said, "I don't know, but that's what they are calling me, and I went over there and the teachers would come to me frightened out of their minds, shaking virtually, to tell me about this or that problem, and here I was an idiot of sorts, telling them, "Well, it's interesting what you're saying." An abdication of our own professional responsibilities, all too many teachers willing to abdicate them. I regret to say the clergy, who have had an extended love affair with psychology and psychiatry, at times uncritical in its dimension. Grabbing on to every possible psychological piety as if its the Lord's latest announcement from on high. I remember Anna Freud wryly commenting on that. She said, "At first they persecuted us in the name of religion and then they made us another religion. And then all the other religions came to us asking us for answers. This in one lifetime."
That's the way it goes unfortunately. I urge you to be the mothers and fathers of your children, and ultimately to understand and gloriously accept that responsibility, to have the courage to ask of them as well as to give to them. To set standards for them and try so hard with them to live up to those standards. To try to find a moral life for a family and to hand that on to another generation. The answers to these dilemmas will not be given you in courses in school or college, nor given to them. Dietrich Barnhofer who was at Union Theological Seminary and went back to Germany to stand up to Hitler, was ultimately killed by Hitler, did what he did out of a conviction of his heart and out of a life that had already been lived before Hitler even came to power. He, as he once put it, had no choice and was gloriously happy that he had no choice. I remember Reinhold Niebuhr how they wanted to send Barnhofer to a psychiatrist in New York because they thought that he had an urge to suffer, a masochistic tendency that was propelling him to go back to Germany when he need not have gone. Such are the moral paradoxes and dilemmas of our life.
The answers are not going to come to you from people like me getting up here and giving you a cozy lecture on child development and moral development which you can then go and find amplified in some course. The answers are going to come through pain and anguish and irony and inconsistency and the paradoxes of this life. The answers are going to come through Tolstoy and George Eliot's "Middlemarch" through "Anna Karina", "Master and Man" and the great human tales. They're going to come out of Isaiah and Jeremiah and the life of Jesus. They're going to come out of Shakespeare and Dickens with that wonderful phrase, "telescopic philanthropy" reminding that young woman because she remembered that phrase and she can write big shot editorials in the Harvard Crimson. You can parade up and down the street here telling everyone how virtuous you are, what your positions are and not necessarily in those small and utterly revealing moments in a home or in a neighborhood, not necessarily be the good person, the good Samaritan.
There is so much handed down to us through our religious life and spiritual life and literary gifts offered us by these extraordinary figures and we can hand on to one another, but ultimately I think it is message of a heart of a mother and a father with a child that says no as well as yes, I can't say that too often. That teaches a child restraint and the virtues that are important. Let us not forget that there is a time and a place for everything under the sun. Let us not hurry and push our children into intellectualized knowledge that means very little to them while there is so much that we have to teach them about the ordinary moral knowledge of everyday life. How to get on with one another and be with one another. The schools at times have been the victims of one fad after another in this century. I suppose will be world without end as the phrase goes, but we parents know there is only one life for our children. Let us call upon common sense, common sense meaning the ordinary knowledge that Ruby's mother and her grandmother and when they turned to her and said, "Oh, Ruby, you have to feel sorry for those people and even pray for them." When I think how I might have spent my time with Ruby trying to help her get angry at those people and to express her anger and talk about her anger and work her anger out, then I can only be thankful to the good Lord that I had her mother and her grandmother as teachers. I'll never forget going to England and presenting a lot of this to my colleagues and Anna Freud listening to this, she scratched her head and she said, "Another reminder to us, how much we have to learn from those people who supposedly have so much to learn from us." I repeat, how much we have to learn from those people who supposedly, who supposedly, have so much to learn from us. On that paradoxical statement I think I'll end.
Webmaster's note: Introduction given by Phil Benincasa, Principal, Alcott School, which is not in this transcript. At the end of Dr. Cole's talk (1:31:10) follows a question and answer period which is not in this transcript. Because there was no microphone in the audience, the questions from the audience were digitally enhanced (volume increased) to be able to hear the questions.