May 23, 2010

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Benjamin Carson
Commencement address
May 23, 2010

Thank you very much for inviting me to be a part of this wonderful celebration.

Congratulations to all of the awardees and the graduates who are going to be a significant part of our future.

A special shout out to Wendy Wallace, who is going to become a part of the family of one of my colleagues.

You know, I had a wonderful opportunity yesterday to meet with a couple of Bucknell students who had been patients of mine.

And I'm sure there are probably some more out there who've either been my patients or patients in our department. I have lots of friends who have kids who have gone to Bucknell so I feel a real relationship there.

Now I wanted to talk a little bit today, though, about you and our future, our future as a nation, which some people think we're on the decline right now. But hopefully you won't think that by the time we finish here.

Interest in medicine
Now first of all I've got to tell you that, the only thing that ever interested me as a youngster growing up was medicine.

I loved anything that had to do with medicine and particularly, I used to love the stories in church. They frequently featured missionary doctors who seemed to me like the most noble people on the face of the earth — traveling all over the world at great personal sacrifice to bring not only physical but mental and spiritual healing to people.

And I said, there's no more noble thing a person can do. So it was my dream from the time I was eight years old to become a missionary doctor. Until I was 13, at which time having grown up in dire poverty, I decided I'd rather be rich. So at that point, missionary doctor was out, and psychiatrist was in.

Now I didn't know any psychiatrists but they seemed like rich people on television. They drove Jaguars, had the big fancy mansions, the plush offices, and all they had to do was talk to crazy people all day.

And it seemed like I was doing that anyway so I said, 'This is going to work out extremely well.' And I started reading Psychology Today. I was the local shrink in high school. Everybody brought me their problems. I would stroke my chin, say, 'Tell me about your mama.'

And I majored in psychology in college, did advanced psych in medical school - I was gung ho.

Then I started meeting a bunch of psychiatrists — need I say more. Just kidding; some of my best friends are psychiatrists.

But I quickly discovered that, what psychiatrists do in real life and what they do on television are completely different things. They're really some of the more intellectual members of the medical community.

Analyze your life
But it wasn't what I wanted to do, so I had to stop and ask myself, 'What are you really, really good at?'

That's a vital question to ask yourself as a young person. And as I analyzed my life I realized I had a lot of eye-hand coordination, the ability to think in three dimensions.

I was a very careful person, never knocked things over and said 'Oops,' which is a good characteristic for a brain surgeon, by the way.

And I loved to dissect things, so I said, 'You know, with your interest in the brain, you'd be a terrific brain surgeon' and that's really how I came to that conclusion.

Analyzing one's gifts and talents makes a huge difference. Now, just a moment; I need to make a disclaimer here. Everybody makes disclaimers these days. They say, 'I'm going to sit on this board or on that board, I'm going to have a relationship with this organization so you have to take everything I say with a grain of salt.'

What I have discovered in recent years is that it's virtually impossible to talk to a large group of individuals these days without offending someone. Have you noticed that?

When I was a kid growing up, people used to say, 'Sticks and stones break my bones but words will never hurt me.'

You young people have probably never even heard that. Names kill people now. People walk around with their feelings on their shoulders, waiting for somebody to say something. 'Oh, did you hear what they said?' And they can't hear anything else.

I was talking to a group once about the difference between a human brain and a dog's brain, and a man got offended. He said, 'You can't talk about dogs like that.'

And I was talking to a group about how the fashion industry has gotten the young ladies to think they're supposed to be so skinny, they look like they escaped from a concentration camp.

And a Jewish man got offended. He said, 'You can't mention concentration camps; that's way too sensitive. It would be as if I said something to you about slavery.'

I said, 'You can talk about slavery all day, it doesn't bother me.' But some people just choose to get offended.

So my disclaimer is the following: It is not my intention to offend anyone here. And if anyone is offended, too bad.

Because I've got to tell you; I really do not believe in political correctness, and in fact, I believe it is a very destructive force. In fact, it seems to me like the founders of this nation came here trying to escape from people who tried to tell you what you could say and what you could think.

And here we come reintroducing it through the back door, and I think they would turn over in their graves. In fact, the emphasis should not be on unanimity of speech and unanimity of thought; the emphasis should be on learning how to treat people with whom you disagree with respect.

You know, that's what makes for a great nation, and that's what we need to be aiming for.

Particularly important these days when people love to distort things. I'm aware of an Internet piece that distorted something that I said, and claimed that I said that people who believe in evolution have no ethics.

Of course I would never say such a silly thing. But people take things like that and they run with it. And what we need to do is to just learn how to recognize that, if two people believe the same on everything, then one of them isn't necessary.

One of the ways that we're able to make progress in life is to be able to discuss things openly, because otherwise you're just having a bunch of artificial conversations and they mean nothing, and that's why we're not making a lot of progress.

Obstacles to overcome
At any rate, there were a lot of obstacles for me along my way to realizing my dream of becoming a physician, not the least of which was the fact that my parents got divorced early on.

My mother was one of 24 children, and got married when she was 13. She and my father moved from rural Tennessee, to Detroit. He was a factory worker. Years later she discovered he was a bigamist, he had another family.

I remember telling that story at a graduation at the University of Utah, nobody thought it was that strange.

See that, I probably offended somebody. Everybody knows they don't do that in Utah anymore, right? Now it's Texas — just kidding.

She was obviously alarmed; a divorce ensued. We moved to Boston to live with her older sister and brother-in-law in a typical tenement — large, multi-family dwellings with boarded-up windows and doors, sirens, gangs, murders. Both my older cousins were killed — rats, roaches, the whole nine yards.

My mother was working two to three jobs at a time as a domestic because she didn't want to be on welfare. Because even though she only had a third grade education, she was very observant. And she noticed that no one she ever saw go on welfare came off of it.

And she didn't want that life for herself, and she didn't want it for us. She figured if she worked long enough and hard enough, eventually we could return to Detroit, and after a few years we were able to.

I was a fifth grade student, a horrible student, the worst student you could imagine. I thought I was really dumb; all my classmates agreed with me. In fact, my nickname was Dummy, that's what they all called me.

But my mother believed in me when nobody else did. She was always saying, 'Benjamin, you're much too smart to be bringing home grades like this.'

I brought them home anyway but she was always encouraging and she didn't know what to do. And she prayed and asked God to give her wisdom, and came up with idea of turning off the TV set. She said we could only watch two or three TV programs during the week and with all that spare time we had to read two books apiece from the Detroit public libraries, and submit to her written book reports, which she couldn't read but we didn't know that.

She would put little check marks and highlights and underline and stuff like that. I didn't like this very much but after a while, I actually began to enjoy reading those books.

We were desperately poor but between the covers of those books I could go anywhere, I could be anybody, I could do anything. I began to know things that nobody else knew. Within the space of a year and a half I went from the bottom of the class to the top of the class, much to the consternation of all the students who used to laugh and call me Dummy.

The ones who called me Dummy in the fifth grade were coming to me in the seventh grade saying, 'Benny, Benny, Benny. How do you work this problem?' And I'd say, "Sit at my feet, youngster, while I instruct you."

I was perhaps a little obnoxious but it sure felt good to say that to those turkeys.

The key thing was I had a very, very different impression of myself. Same brain.

Marvelous brain
You know, when you stop and you think about the human brain — what an incredible organ system you have up here — billions and billions of neurons, hundreds of billions of interconnections.

Your brain can process more than two million bits of information per second; think about that.

Question for you: How many of you remember your birthday? Let me just see your hand. Okay, wasn't too much partying last night, okay that's good.

Now, what did your brain have to do for you to respond almost instantly to that question?

To give you an example of how sophisticated your brain is. First of all, the sound waves have to leave my lips [for Dr. Carson's detailed and rapid explanation, click here for audio] — so you can raise your hand.

Now see if you can get one of those rap singers to do that. That was the simplified version of what your brain had to do. If we'd gotten into all the coordinating and inhibitory influences, we'd still be here all day talking about that one thing.

Your brain can do all that stuff almost instantaneously. Can you imagine what the human brain is actually capable of if we put our minds to it? And that's why it is so important, as you go out into the world, to recognize what you have up here. But also to realize what other people have out there.

You know, there was a survey done in the '90s, looking at the ability of eighth-grade equivalents to solve so-called complex math and science problems. We were one of the 22 nations who participated, and we ranked number 21 out of 22. That's alarming.

We produce 60,000 engineers a year in this country, 40 percent of whom are foreigners. China produces 392,000 engineers a year. This is really quite an alarming situation. Thirty percent of people in this country do not graduate from high school.

History of our nation
Now why do I bring all this up? Because you all will have spheres of influence. And also, I draw your attention to history. It wasn't always like that in this nation.

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman, came to this nation to study our government. The Europeans were fascinated: How could a nation barely 50 years old already be competing with them economically? Industrially?

How could a government be so conducive to entrepreneurship and advancement? How could we be ascending the ladder to a supreme condition so quickly?

But while he was there, he said, 'I'm going to look at their educational system, too.'

He was flabbergasted to find that anybody finishing the second grade in this country was literate. Fifth and sixth graders were unbelievable. The emphasis was so great on education in this nation.

If you go back and you look at the writings of the Founding Fathers, and how they talked about how a society like this, which was a great experiment, could only succeed if the populace was well educated, so they couldn't be easily led astray.

It was fascinating. He would even go out into the frontiers, find mountain men; they could read; they could calculate; they understood civics. And this was the only society in the history of the world that promoted education for everybody, and not just for the aristocracy.

It was a society that promoted entrepreneurship and hard work. It was a society that promoted caring about each other.

Do you realize when our nation was in its early days — if there was a stampede and somebody's fence got trampled down. There was a tornado and somebody's barn got blown down. Where do you think everybody was the next day? Right there, helping them build it back up again. That's the kind of heritage that you come from.

Think about World War II — nations of the world falling one after another, like dominos, about to come under subjection of tyrannical powers — except for one thing. This country. The United States of America. The country with the ability to send its young men from the cities, the suburbs, the country, to fight war on two different fronts of the world.

The country with the ability to send its young women into the factories to build more airplanes, tanks and mortars than anybody could imagine. A country that through its determination and its industrial might changed the course of the world. A country that reached the pinnacle faster than any other nation in the world.

Think about this — 300 years; 500 years; a thousand years; two thousand years; three thousand years before this nation came into existence. When a farmer's crops were ready, what did he do? He put on the cart, hooked up his horses and took it into town.

Within 200 years of the advent of this nation, men were walking on the moon. Completely changed mankind because the education and because of the systems that were put in place to encourage people.

This does not have to be something of the past. It is something that we can continue to work with, something that each of you, in your sphere of influence, can make a difference in.

I just want to close by talking about success. What is success? It's a big house, a lot of cars, fancy titles, big bank account — I don't think so.

In 1997, I was asked to come to South Africa to head up a team in an attempt to separate type two vertical craniopagus twins — Siamese twins joined at the top of the head facing in opposite directions.

There'd been 13 attempts to separate twins like that before, none of which had been successful. So I knew it was going to be a great medical challenge. But it was also going to be a great social challenge because it was going to be done at the Medical University of South Africa at Medunsa, the only major black teaching hospital in South Africa, always the stepchild throughout apartheid and in the post-apartheid period.

This was going to be their chance to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Capetown and Johannesburg, all the other great universities.

I wasn't ready for all that social pressure. I said, 'Lord, you got to show me something here. Smarter, more capable people than me have tried and failed.' And as I was studying their anatomy on our three-dimensional workbench - this is a device that has the ability to integrate the angiogram, the CAT scan, the MRI into a 3-D image - you put your goggles on, you can study the anatomy.

I noticed that the common drainage system that they shared was narrower centrally than peripherally. The traditional neurosurgical literature said you should decide which twin to give the drainage system to. Divide them over the course of two or three operations, divided in time by several weeks to months so that they would develop collateral circulation.

I felt strongly that if we concentrated on the area where the circulation was narrowing down, we could do it in one long operation; that they would develop collateral circulation during that operation.

When I explained that to the team, they said, 'You're the boss; we'll do whatever you want to do.'

And when I came into that operating room two days before New Year's of 1998, there was a big sign over the operating room that said, 'God Bless Joseph and Luka Banda.'

They were having song service and prayer service. I asked them to bring in a stereo system so we could play inspirational music. Nineteen hours into the operation, we were only three-quarters of the way finished. The part that remained was so complex; the blood vessels were adhesed, they were entangled, they were engorged. It looked impossible.

We stopped the operation and we went into conference. I suggested we could cover it over with skin, come back in a few months, that they would have developed enough collateral that we could then cut through.

And the doctors from Zambia and South Africa said, 'That's a great idea.' And I knew it would work at Johns Hopkins. But we don't have the ability to keep partially separated twins alive; they'll die. 

Now I really felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. I didn't have all my fancy equipment. I had my surgical loupes, my scalpel, and a prayer on my lips. I said, 'Lord, it's up to you.'

I went in there and I started cutting between those blood vessels that were so thin you could see the anesthetic bubbles coursing through them, just daring you to make a mistake.

To make a long story short, when I made the final cut that separated those twins, over the stereo system came the Hallelujah chorus. And everybody has goose bumps. And when we finished that operation after 28 hours - one of the twins popped his eyes open, reached up for the intratrachial tube. The other one did the same thing, and by the time we got to the ICU, within two days they were extubated. Within three days they were eating. Within two weeks they were crawling. And next week they graduate from the sixth grade.

That was not the success. The success you had to be there to witness was the reaction of the people. This was done in their hospital, in their country. They were literally dancing in the streets, their level of self-esteem was so high.

That's what I mean by success — using the talent that God has given you to elevate other people. And that's what I mean when I say, 'Think big.' Each one of those letters mean something special.

The T is for Talent, which God gave to every single person — not just the ability to sing and dance and throw a ball but intellectual talent. That's what got us to the pinnacle. That's what we have to emphasize.

I have nothing against sports and entertainment but what will keep us in our position? Is it the ability to shoot a 25-foot jumpshot or the ability to solve a quadratic equation?

The H is for Honesty; lead a clean and honest life. If you put skeletons in the closet, they will come back to haunt you, just when you don't want to see them. And if you always tell the truth, you don't have to try to remember what you said three months ago. And you can concentrate on the task at hand.

The I is for Insight, which comes from listening to people who have already gone where you're trying to go. Learn from their triumphs; learn from their mistakes. And we can learn a lot from history. I could talk for easily an hour about things that we could learn from history.

The N is for Nice. Be nice to people, because once they get over their suspicion of why you're being nice, they'll be nice to you. You get so much more done when you're being nice and they're being nice. Can we all take the niceness pledge? Everybody, not just the graduates, just raise your hand, we're all going to take the niceness pledge, even the faculty. If the person beside you doesn't have their hand up, you may kick them because after this you have to be nice.

Now what does that mean? The niceness pledge means you're going to be nice to every single person you encounter for one week. That includes members of your family, too.

Now what does it mean? It means no talking about people behind their back for a week. I know some people will stroke out. It means if you see somebody struggling, you're going to help them.

Men, it means we're bringing chivalry back. Open the doors for the ladies, hold their chairs for them. Ladies, it means you're not cursing them out when they do that. There's only one spot on the elevator, you're going to let somebody else have it. And when you're on the elevator, you're not going to act like you never saw the numbers change before. Speak to people.

You might have to practice CPR but speak to people. Speak to maids, speak to janitors, speak to security, speak to people you walk by and act like they don't exist — because they do, and they have feelings. And what would your life be like if they weren't there?

You're going to get in your car. The parking lot is jam-packed with no spaces. Three people are following you in their car because they want your space. When you get in the car, you're not going to open the glove box and pull down the mirror. Just get out of the space and let them have it. You don't have to revel in your power.

But what are you doing during that week? Thinking about others first.

What kind of society, what kind of a nation, what kind of a world could we have if we would just think about others first? We do have the capability of doing that.

The K is for Knowledge which is the thing that makes you into a more valuable person. Do I have a big house? Yes. Lot of cars? Yes, I grew up in Detroit. Do I have a lot of things that Robin Leach thinks are important? Yes.

Are they important? No, they mean nothing. And if they all disappeared tomorrow, I don't care. Because I can get them all right back, almost immediately. But what's up here, or at least I could before managed care. And that's what Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived meant when he said, 'Gold, silver, and rubies are nice but treasure far above those knowledge, wisdom and understanding.' With those, he knew you could get all the gold and silver and rubies you wanted.

More important, you come to understand that those things don't amount to a hill of beans - that the most important thing is developing your God-given talents to the point where you become valuable to the people around you.

The B is for Books, which is the mechanism for obtaining that knowledge. You know, it's never too late. My mother did teach herself to read, got her GED, went on to college and in 1994 got an honorary doctorate so she's Dr. Carson now, too. So it's never too late.

The second I is for In-depth learning, learning for the sake of knowledge and understanding, as opposed to superficial learning. Superficial learners cram, cram, cram before a test, sometimes do okay, and three weeks later know nothing. I'm sure none of you know anyone like that. But we can't afford that. That's how we got to be number 21 out of 22. This dynamic has got to change; it is extraordinarily serious.

The last letter G is for God, who has become politically incorrect in our society. I think that's a huge mistake. People say, 'You can't talk about God, not in public. That violates separation of church and state.'

Do you realize that, in this state, in 1787, during the Constitutional Convention, when the whole thing was about to break apart because the large states and the small states had such divergent opinions — Benjamin Franklin, the elder statesman, stood up there in front of that crowd and he said, 'Gentlemen, stop. Let's get on our knees and let's pray. Let's ask God to give us wisdom.' And they knelt down and they prayed. And when they got up, they put together a 17-page document known as the Constitution of the United States, which is the most spectacular governing document anyone has ever put together.

And you know what? People who say things like that; do they realize that our founding document, our Declaration of Independence, talked about certain inalienable rights given to us by our creator a.k.a. God.

Do they realize the Pledge of Allegiance to that flag says we are one nation under God? That most courtrooms in the land on the wall it says In God We Trust — every coin in our pocket, every bill in our wallet says In God We Trust.

So if it's in our founding documents, it's in our pledge, it's in our courts and it's on our money, but we're not supposed to talk about it — what in the world is that?

In medicine we call it schizophrenia, and doesn't that explain a lot of what's going on in our society today?

And we need to make it perfectly plain as you go forth, that it's okay to live by Godly principles of loving your fellow man, caring about your neighbor, developing your God-given talents to their utmost so you become valuable to the people around you — of having values and principles that govern your life.

If we do that, not only will we remain a pinnacle nation, but we will truly have one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Thank you. God bless you.

Contact: Division of Communications


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