Ben Carson’s Education Story And What It Means Revisited

“Through it all, his mother who was a single parent, vehemently encouraged Carson and his brother to read anything they could, as often as they could.”

One of the principles of my blog is “Critical Thought”. I originally published this piece on the Examiner in the fall of 2015, during the historic 2016 presidential election from which President Donald J. Trump emerged the victor. The legendary neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson was one of the many candidates in the Republican primary. His alignment with the Republican party, and his subsequent position in the Trump administration caused him to fall from grace in Black America, and to be discarded altogether by some, which I feel is unfortunate. I’m republishing this piece for Black History Month 2019 to remind everyone of where Dr. Carson came from, what he accomplished, and that others can do it too.

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First off, this article was not written with the intention of endorsing any presidential candidate.

Anytime an African American aligns with the Republican Party, it raises suspicions within our community and often sparks ridicule. This year Dr. Benjamin Carson is hoping to win the Republican nomination for the United States Presidency. Admittedly it surprised me years ago upon discovering his political affiliation. At the time of this article’s publication, the Huffington Post’s current data shows that Dr. Carson is second only to Donald Trump in the field of candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination. It will be really interesting to see if he’ll hold second place or even ascend to first place by the time the final candidate is selected.

Carson’s messages have included: denouncing of the Common Core education standards, securing of the Mexican border and more stringent immigration policies, and reformation of the tax code to name a few. At his own peril and at the risk of alienating African Americans, he has also openly questioned the Black Lives Matter movement. While many see Carson simply as this year’s token African American conservative candidate seeking the Republican presidential nomination, he holds a different significance for me.

During my graduate studies at the University of Michigan, Dr. Carson (a Michigan Medical School alumnus) returned as the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day speaker one year. Then the Dean of Neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins University, he’d already become famous. He made several points during his speech but those which stood out most to me focused on his youth in inner-city Detroit. Early in his life (during the Civil Rights era), “Bennie” as he was referred to, was actually an underachiever academically and was viewed as unintelligent by his classmates and teachers.

Through it all, his mother who was a single parent, vehemently encouraged Carson and his brother to read anything they could, as often as they could. After years of academic underachievement, the light finally switched on for young Ben Carson and he realized that he too could use his mind to achieve scholastically and make something of himself. He of course went on to become a world-renowned neurosurgeon, where his most famous feat was the separation of the conjoined twins.

There’s an empowerment message within Ben Carson’s story for everyone. Whether or not he ascends to the presidency, he’s a symbol that one can make it out of a single parent household and less than ideal conditions. His success wasn’t an accident, nor was it luck. It was due to his mother’s oversight and vigilance.

Data from Kids Count spanning from 2009 to 2013 show that the African American community leads the nation in children in single parent families over all other ethnic groups during that interval (67% vs. 25% for Non-Hispanic Whites). The reasons for this data clearly vary and are regularly discussed and debated. While it is greatly accepted that having both parents at home is ideal, not having both doesn’t have to necessarily be a hindrance. For me that’s one of the significances of Ben Carson’s story.

While money, state of the art facilities, books and computers are important, Ben Carson’s story (and messages) points to the value and love for education as being the key pieces in a child’s academic achievement and securing of an independent and productive life. This is assuming the instilling of other important values such as a work ethic and integrity as well. Once again while a two-parent home is ideal, it isn’t always a necessary circumstance for kids to go on to achieve success.

In closing, Ben Carson’s story points to the fact that schools alone can’t educate children, and that it requires collaboration with the parents. In his recent article entitled, How Can Parental Involvement in Schools Improve?, Michael J. Ryan argues that public education is a collective commitment between the school system and families where both have to do their part for a child’s success. In the end of his piece, he suggests that it is time to have all families sign a covenant, or contract with their respective schools, compelling them to do their part to help their child’s education as Ben Carson’s mother did for him.

The picture used in this post comes straight from the University of Michigan Medical School. There’s a corridor there in the vast medical school complex where the walls are lined with collages of pictures of every medical class going back to the early twentieth century. Sometimes during graduate school, I’d walk that corridor to access the medical school’s cafeteria around lunch time. I stumbled across Dr. Carson’s picture one day with his medical class. As you can see, he’s in his mid- to late-twenties or early-thirties and is wearing an “Afro”. I took this picture recently when I returned to the University of Michigan for homecoming weekend.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Whose job is it to teach Black History?
Are you Cooning? Thoughts on Black America’s new favorite racial slur, critical thought, and groupthink
A Black History Month reflection on Percy Julian
A Black History Month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris
A Black History Month look at West Indian Archie
A review of Marvel’s Black Panther

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