Privileged Ones is the fifth and last of Robert Coles’s Children of Crisis series. In four earlier volumes Dr. Coles interviewed a wide range of American children—Eskimos, Appalachians, migrant workers. Now he deals with the children of what he calls “The Well-Off and the Rich in America.”
Dr. Coles is a professional child psychiatrist (“There are, after all, only a few hundred such men and women in the country”); he is currently at Harvard. According to the publisher, he has written twenty-four books. Except for Children of Crisis, I cannot say that I really know his work. From time to time I see articles by him; whenever I do, I feel a warm glow. I like thee, Dr. Coles, I know not why. Perhaps it is because I am interested in many of his large subjects (economic injustice, children, Middle America). Certainly, I admire his uninhibited liberalism; his obvious compassion for those he deals with. The fact that I seldom actually finish reading anything that he writes probably has to do with my own perhaps irrational conviction that Dr. Coles’s heart is so entirely in all the right places (mouth, boots, upon the sleeve) that nothing he has to say will ever surprise me despite the fact that he has traveled far and reasonably wide because “One hopes; one hopes against hope that somehow it will make a little difference; only a little, but still some, if people mostly unknown to almost all of us get better known to more of us.” This generous sentiment is from the preface to the penultimate volume Eskimos, Chicanos, Indians. Yet no matter how far afield Dr. Coles goes, he is seldom able to tell us anything that we did not already know.
I suspect that this gift for inducing déjà vu may very well be the most subtle form of teaching. Where Plato makes us think by asking questions, Dr. Coles makes us feel by giving answers—in the form of monologues attributed to various children, an enjoyable if somewhat questionable technique (even Dr. Coles is disturbed by a form of “narrative that excludes myself as much as possible, and brings [the reader] directly to the children…. I may well have made a mistake, given the limitations of words, not to mention my own shortcomings”).
Children of Crisis is a work of high seriousness, and a great deal of labor (if not work) has gone into the compilation of so many interviews with so many children over so many years. The persona of Dr. Coles is truly attractive… and it is the persona that one is most conscious of while reading him. Thanks no doubt to “the limitations of words” he is present, like God, in every aspect of his creation and, unlike God, he must be a most agreeable companion for a child, causing a minimum of that sort of dislocation Lévi-Strauss notes in Tristes tropiques: the moment that the anthropologist appears on the scene a pristine culture ceases …