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Teaching and Learning, Strutting and Conniving


By Robert Coles | March 1988

These columns, which have been running for over six years, have been published under the com­mon title of “Harvard Diary,” and yet the reader will no doubt have noticed by now that I haven’t been all that interested in writing much about the place where at least some of my work (the teaching I do) takes place.

Although I am a pediatrician and a child psy­chiatrist, and took psychoanalytic training as well, I don’t do much teaching in those fields, other than to supervise, occasionally, some hospital resi­dents who are learning to work with children. Al­most all my teaching time at Harvard is spent using novels and poems and short stories and occasional essays to explore moral or religious questions.

I teach two undergraduate courses, one titled “A Literature of Social Reflection,” the other “A Literature of Religious Reflection.” In the former we read writers such as Dickens, George Eliot, Hardy, Ralph Ellison, William Carlos Williams, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. The thrust of the course is toward the question of conduct: How ought I live this life? Novelists who take a close look at the world usually have an idea or two about its rights and wrongs, and their way of seeing things morally can be a helpful antidote to the rhe­torical or the analytic approaches — the preaching of the clergy (not to mention various secular scolds) or the abstract pronouncements of philo­sophical theorists. Stories address and evoke con­crete experience, and can inspire in the reader a mi­metic, an empathic response: the psychological and moral imagination awakened. The class explicitly encourages discussion of a central issue in moral philosophy — how does one move from an intellec­tual analysis of ethical issues to a life that is honorable and decent? It also encourages students to be involved in volunteer activities — tutoring children, working with the sick, the elderly, the homeless — and we discuss in weekly sections their experiences in such activities, trying to connect the students’ reading to the actions.

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