This video depicts Robert Coles, noted author, psychiatrist, documentator and humanist, teaching his popular undergraduate course, "The Literature of Social Reflection," at Harvard University in 1990. The film begins with a bell tolling in a steeple and students entering the lecture hall. Excerpts from his lectures are presented in 4 parts: I: Ruby; II: Seeing--The Paintings of Edward Hopper and The Stories of Raymond Carver; III: Praying; and IV: Potato Chips and Tolstoy.

Some additional documentary clips are shown, such as footage of six-year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted into a previously all-white New Orleans school amidst a screaming mob during forced integration of schools. In between segments, brief interviews of Coles’ students let the viewer know that his message is getting through: it matters how you live your life--it matters a great deal.

Coles teaches with stories and these stories are riveting. In 1960, while in the Air Force and assigned to a psychiatric detail, he befriends young Ruby after he witnesses her courage in entering the school building. He comes to know her family and teacher.

Several months later, during the morning escort, Ruby stops in front of the school and says something which makes the mob even more frenzied. Coles is asked by the teacher to tell Ruby not to do that again. Upon gentle questioning, it turns out that Ruby was not talking to the mob, but to God: "Please God, try to forgive those people because they don’t know what they’re doing."

It was a prayer she said every morning, usually a couple of blocks away from the school, but that morning she had forgotten to do it earlier. Coles discusses the remarkable gift of forgiveness instilled in this brave child by her parents, who despite poverty and lack of opportunity to advance in life, were able to love and teach their children values and grace.

In Part II, Coles uses paintings by Edward Hopper, a poem by Raymond Carver ("What the Doctor Said" (annotated by Felice Aull and Irene Chen, also annotated by James Terry) and Carver short story (Cathedral) to illustrate how difficult it can be to truly communicate with and know another person. And how magical the moments are when we do.

In Part III, Coles shows some of the children’s drawings that he has collected during his documentary work. Coles delights in describing what the children said about their drawings at the time they created them. He clearly respects them and their ideas.

The last part ends with the story of the death of Coles’s mother at Massachusetts General Hospital. In her dying days she befriended an African-American woman, whose job was at the bottom of the hierarchy of the hospital: an orderly. After Coles’s mother died, it was this woman--not any doctor or nurse--who taught Coles how to take the time and be with his mother, rather than rush off as he was preparing to do. Coles asks, "Who was the doctor, the healer, the wise person?"

He notes that these twists are characteristic of many stories, such as those by Flannery O’Connor. He then concludes before a standing ovation: "Let us be good to one another, live on behalf of one another . . . . We are lucky to have these writers . . . and to have the lives that can include them."


Coles is a remarkable educator--with a gentle manner and touches of humor he delivers a powerful message that students and viewers can use to help reflect on life’s moral values and purpose. The film is well edited, and despite the brevity of the video compared to the course as a whole, one still gets a sense of Coles’s teaching style, lessons, and impact.


The video has become difficult to obtain. Try through or




Social Media Productions

Running Time (in minutes)