BY WALTER VILLA, Special to STU
Renown neurosurgeon and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, Dr. Benjamin Carson, made his first-ever visit to St. Thomas University last week, leaving his audience with many words of wisdom but perhaps none as thought-provoking as these:
“If two people agree about everything,” Carson began, “then one of them isn’t necessary.”
The packed house at the Peter T. Fay Moot Court Room at STU’s Benjamin L. Crump College of Law laughed along with Carson following the aforementioned statement.
But Carson had a point, and he proved it with his next two sentences.
“I think we’re all necessary,” Carson said. “I just think we need more open dialogues.”
Carson’s most recent book, Crisis in the Classroom, is a case in point. He wrote it with attorney Benjamin L. Crump, and nationally syndicated talk-show host Armstrong Williams, both of whom were also at STU last week.
All three men are distinguished and highly accomplished, but they are also very different.
Carson, who ran for president in 2016 as a Republican and later served in the Trump administration as the U.S. Secretary of Urban Housing and Development, is a conservative.
Crump, one of the nation’s most successful civil-rights lawyers, is a champion of liberal causes.
Williams is a conservative as well as an entrepreneur, author, and political commentator.
But unlike Carson, who was raised by a single mother in Detroit’s rough-and-tumble inner city, Williams grew up in affluence with two parents who owned a 200-acre farm.
STU President David A. Armstrong, J.D., who moderated a fireside chat on Wednesday with Carson and Williams, is justifiably proud to have had such disparate voices on campus last week.
“St. Thomas University is committed to the academic and professional success of its students who go on to become ethical leaders in the global community,” President Armstrong quoted from STU’s mission statement. “It is that last phrase that explains why we are here today.
“In order to become ethical leaders in the global community, we need to have critical conversations. We need to have quality, civil discourse, and we will have that.”
President Armstrong said it was Williams who suggested to have Carson come to STU to discuss the book. Armstrong jumped at the chance, especially since Crisis in the Classroom was already mandatory reading for STU first-year students.
Carson, who spoke first, opened by marveling at his surroundings.
“I had no idea St. Thomas University’s law school was so big,” Carson said. “It’s a beautiful environment here.
“Education is near and dear to my heart. Armstrong Williams and Ben Crump and I come from very different political spectrums. But we agree that there is a real problem with education.”
Carson said Europeans who came to the United States in the nation’s first 50 years marveled at how the U.S. could already compete internationally on virtually every level.
The Americans impressed with their innovation, entrepreneurship and, most especially, education.
“You could go into the middle of the woods and find a mountain man, and he knew how to read,” Carson said. “The guy could tell them about the Declaration of Independence.
“If you really want to be impressed, look at a sixth-grade exit exam from 150 years ago. I don’t think most adults today could pass that test. That’s part of what we are talking about — the dumbing down of America.”
Williams, who spoke after Carson, said bureaucracy is one of many issues.
“Teachers have to file this report and that report, and there’s the pressure of standardized tests,” Williams said. “Teachers rarely have the time to teach.
“That bureaucracy has to change.”
There are other problems, too. Williams said some kids come to school hungry and malnourished. Some kids come to school set to be disruptive and with no intention to learn. And some kids come to school medicated with anti-depressants or other drugs.
Even so, there are no excuses.
“We should never normalize ignorance and kids not learning,” Williams said. “No drug can substitute for good parenting and good teaching.
“It is high time we come together to solve the most devastating issue we face today; the lack of education.
“Young boys and girls who don’t learn (often end up on the streets). They sell drugs, they steal, they do sexual trafficking.
“They are trying to find a way to build a life, but they can’t because they have been robbed in the classroom. We failed them where it matters most.”
Carson could have ended up as one of those sad stories.
He had a violent temper as a youth, which is what he wrote in one of his earlier books, Gifted Hands.
Carson said he was one of the worst students in his school for a while.
“My mother was the only one who believed in me,” Carson said. “She would say, ‘Benjamin, you are much too smart to bring home grades like this.’
“I brought them home anyway.”
Everything soon changed.
Carson’s mother, who would work from 5 a.m. to midnight as a cleaning lady, started to notice that the wealthy folks she worked for did not watch much television. They read books instead.
She imposed those standards on her two sons.
“My brother and I were not happy,” Carson said. “In today’s world, we would probably call social services.”
Since he had no choice, Carson started to read about entrepreneurs, scientists, surgeons, philosophers, and explorers.
Soon, if he had a spare five minutes, Carson would fill that time by reading.
There was a lot of disruption due to some unruly students at his high school. Teachers rarely delivered their lessons because they were dealing with disciplinarian duties.
But Carson found a way around that problem by volunteering to be a teacher’s assistant in courses such as biology, chemistry, and physics. That allowed Carson the ability to see and understand the experiments that many students never saw or heard.
In other words, the biggest lesson Carson learned in high school was self-reliance.
Nothing was going to get in the way between him and a proper education.
“I got really excited because I figured out that the person who has the most to do with what happens to you in your life is you,” Carson said.
“In the span of 18 months, I went from being a ‘dummy’ to the top of the class.”
Carson went on to graduate from Yale University even though, initially, he could barely afford the $10 application fee to get into the school. After graduating from medical school at the University of Michigan, Carson went to work as a Johns Hopkins doctor.
It was there in 1984 — at the age of 33 — that Carson became the youngest chief of pediatric neurosurgery in the country.
Carson, though, believes many students have the brainpower to achieve greatness – under the right guidance and circumstances.
“God gave us these amazing brains,” Carson said. “Your brain can process more than two million bits of information per second.
“You can’t overload your brain.”
Carson said an educated population is the USA’s best chance at competing in the future against China and India, nations that each have more than four times as many people as we have here.
To compete, adjustments have to be made. It cannot be “my way or the highway,” Carson said. There must be more cooperation between all stakeholders.
“We have to analyze,” Carson said. “What are the real issues? What is the evidence?
“Rather than throwing politics into everything, we have to use our brains. We will never succeed in a diverse nation if everything is political.”
However, despite the problems outlined in Crisis in the Classroom, Carson said there is a path forward.
It starts with a greater sense of community.
“Love your neighbor,” Carson said, “not ‘cancel your neighbor’ if you don’t agree with them.”
The path forward also includes standing up for what is right, even when that takes courage.
“We can’t be the land of the free,” Carson said, “if we’re not the home of the brave.”
But, with all of that said, Carson reminded his audience about our nation’s greatness.
“You see a lot of people trying to denigrate our country,” Carson said. “If it’s all that bad, why are so many people trying to get in here? And when they get here, if it’s bad, wouldn’t they call their friends and relatives and tell them not to come? In fact, the opposite is happening.
“Have you ever noticed that America is the only place that has a dream? There is no French dream or Canadian dream.
“It’s the American dream.”