News

May 23, 2009

Dr. Benjamin S. Carson Sr. Speaks at 174th Commencement

College awards 573 degrees to 555 graduating seniors and honorary doctorates to four distinguished leaders

Lafayette granted 573 degrees to 555 graduating seniors and honorary doctorates to four distinguished leaders, including pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin S. Carson Sr., today at the College’s 174th Commencement.

President Daniel H. Weiss awarded Carson the honorary degree of Doctor of Science. Also receiving honorary degrees were Elliot J. Sussman, president and chief executive officer of Lehigh Valley Health Network (Doctor of Public Service); Nechama Tec, Holocaust scholar and author (Doctor of Humane Letters); and Trustee Emeritus Riley K. Temple ’71, a principal in the Washington, D.C., strategic consulting firm Temple Strategies (Doctor of Laws).

Weiss presented a memorial tribute and moment of silence for Jeremy Saxe ’09, who died this past summer. He announced that a new award will be presented to students annually in Saxe’s honor beginning next school year.

Nicholas Albano ’09 delivered farewell remarks for the Class of 2009. He is the recipient of the George Wharton Pepper Prize, awarded to the senior who “most closely represents the Lafayette ideal.” Albano, of Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., graduated with a B.S. in biology.

The first student to receive her diploma was Rachel Heron ’09, who achieved the highest cumulative grade-point average in the class. Heron, of Downingtown, Pa., received an A.B. with majors in English and geology.

Nicholas Diaz ’09, Caitlin Sorenson ’09, and Gabriel Walker ’09, co-chairs of the Class of 2009 Gift Committee, presented the class gift. Diaz, of Staten Island, N.Y., received an A.B. in English. Sorenson, of Round Rock, Texas, received an A.B. with majors in government & law and international affairs. Walker, of Malvern, Pa., received an A.B. with a major in psychology.

Weiss congratulated the recipients of annual Lafayette awards for distinguished teaching, scholarship, and service to the College and recognized Stephen E. Lammers, Helen H.P. Manson Professor of the English Bible; Ronald E. Robbins, associate dean of the College; and Edmond J. Seifried, professor of economics and business, who are retiring and have been elected to emeritus status.

Alan R. Griffith ’64, chair of the Board of Trustees, recognized trustees S. Robert Beane Jr. ’58 and George F. Rubin ’64, who are retiring and have been elected to emeritus status.

Weiss conferred degrees upon the graduates and delivered farewell remarks. Assisting in presenting diplomas were Susan A. Niles, professor of anthropology and clerk of the faculty, and Hannah W. Stewart-Gambino, dean of the College. .

Guy L. Hovis, John H. Markle Professor of Geology, the faculty member who is senior in the rank of full professor, led the academic procession as Bearer of the Mace. James F. Krivoski, vice president for student affairs, marshaled the Class of 2009.

Wendy L. Hill, provost and dean of the faculty, marched at the head of the faculty. President Emeritus Arthur J. Rothkopf ’55 led the trustees and the platform party.

Colatch delivered the invocation and gave the benediction. Jennifer W. Kelly, assistant professor of music and director of choral activities, led the singing of “America the Beautiful.” Members of the Lafayette Choir, led by Kelly, will led the singing of the alma mater.

Address by Dr. Benjamin S. Carson Sr.
174th Commencement, May 23, 2009

Thank you very much. It’s indeed a great honor and pleasure to be here. I’m so thankful that the weather has held up although some of you who are pretty hot are not. I just want to add my congratulations to all the incredibly bright young people who are graduating today and to their families.

I must say that medicine was the only thing that was very interesting to me as a young person. If there was a story on the television or radio about medicine – zoom, I was right there, just like a magnet. I even liked going to the doctor’s office, and I guess that means I was kind of strange, but there was something about those needles and syringes I loved. Going to the hospital was the best thing of all, because we were on medical assistance, so we would have to wait for hours before one of the interns or residents could see us. For me, that was great because I’d sit in the hallway listening to the P.A. system: “Dr. Jones, Dr. Jones, to the emergency room! Dr. Johnson to the clinic!” They just sounded so important. I’d be thinking, “One day they’ll be saying, ‘Dr. Carson, Dr. Carson!’” But, of course, nowadays we have beepers, so I still don’t get to hear it. But it was so important to have that dream, because sometimes that’s the only thing that pulls you through when the going gets very rough.

It certainly got rough for me along the line. But before I tell you how it got rough, I have to make a little disclaimer. Everybody makes disclaimers these days. They say, I’m on this board or that board or I have this relationship and, therefore, you have to take everything I say with a grain of salt. My disclaimer is the following. I’ve noticed in recent years that it’s virtually impossible to speak to a large group of people without offending someone. Have you noticed that? You young people wouldn’t know this, but when I was growing up, people used to have a saying: “Sticks and stones break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But that went out a long time ago. Names kill people now. People walk around with their feelings on their shoulders waiting for somebody to say something so they can be offended. They can’t hear anything else. I was talking to a group one time 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 another group about how the fashion industry has gotten young ladies to think that you’re supposed to be so skinny they look like they’ve escaped from a concentration camp, and a Jewish man got offended. He said, “You can’t mention concentration camps. That’s too delicate. That would be as if I said something to you about slavery.” I told him, “You can mention slavery all you want. It does not bother me.” Some people choose to get offended. So, here’s my disclaimer. It’s not my intention to offend anyone here today, and if anyone is offended, too bad.

I have to tell you: I don’t believe in political correctness. In fact, I believe it’s a destructive force. If my memory serves me correctly, when I was studying the history of this nation, it seems like there were a lot of people who came here from other nations to escape from people who were telling them what they could say and what they could think. And here we are, introducing it through the back door. I think the emphasis should not be on unanimity of thought or unanimity of speech, but on learning how to talk to people, in an intelligent and peaceful way, with whom you disagree, because that’s the only way in which you’re going to learn. If everybody says the same thing, you’re never going to have enough friction to begin to push yourself. (And I always say if two people agree about everything, one of them isn’t necessary.) We need to change that paradigm going forward.

There were disturbances along the way to my realizing my dream of becoming a physician, not the least of which was the fact that my parents got divorced early on. That was a devastating thing. My mother was one of 24 children and got married at age 13, and she and my father moved from rural Tennessee to Detroit. He was working at a factory. She discovered that he was a bigamist, had another family. I remember telling that story at graduation at the University of Utah, and nobody thought it was that strange. You see that – I probably offended somebody! Now everybody knows they don’t do that in Utah anymore, right? Now it’s Texas. At any rate, she thought that was very strange, so we moved from Detroit to Boston to live with her older sister and brother-in-law in a typical tenement, large multi-family dwelling: boarded-up windows and doors, sirens, gangs, murders. I can remember seeing people lying on the ground with bullet holes and stab wounds, waiting to die. There was never money for anything. But my mother worked two, sometimes three, jobs at a time as a domestic, because she didn’t want to be on welfare. Even though she had only a third-grade education, she was very observant. She noticed that no one she ever saw go on welfare came off it. She didn’t want that life for herself, didn’t want that life for us, and she figured she’d work as long and as hard as necessary. Eventually, after a few years, we were able to move back to Detroit – multi-family dwelling, significant wildlife – but at least she was independent at that time.

I was a fifth-grade student, probably the worst fifth-grade student you’ve ever seen. I thought I was really stupid, and my classmates were in agreement with me, and most of the teachers as well. I was the one shooting paper-wads and telling jokes. But the thing that I enjoyed the most in life was getting other people kicked out of class. And I’ve got to tell you: I was good at it! I would study my classmates and figure out what made them really angry. Then I would just irritate them and irritate them until they were about to explode. But I would never push the last button to make them explode until we were in class, and the teacher was nearby. Then I would do it, they would explode, the teacher would kick them out, and I’d say, “Yeah, this is great!”

There was this one girl, she was Miss Goody-Two-Shoes. You know: everything is perfect, pristine, on-time – makes everybody else look like a total jerk. I said, “Whoa, wouldn’t it be great to get her kicked out of class?”

So I started studying her, but she was a hard nut to crack. I couldn’t figure out what made her mad. Eventually, I figured it out and I started at her, and she was boiling. I mean, steam was coming out of her ears and she was about to explode. But I didn’t push the last button. I waited until we were in class. Lo and behold, she sat right down in the seat in front of me. (I said, “The Lord is good!”) As the teacher approached, I started irritating her and pushed the last button, but she did not explode. She just quietly turned around and said, “You and me on the playground at recess.” That didn’t work out too well. I became a brain surgeon, and she became a professional wrestler. But I did stop bothering people.

The kind of student that I was reminds me a lot of many students that I encounter today. I have a program at the hospital in which I invite about 800 students at a time. I show them slides of the human brain and the kinds of things that go on in a research institution, and we talk about human potential. At the end, I allow them to ask me questions. I remember one time I asked them questions. I said, “Who can name for me five NBA players?” Do you realize, virtually every hand went up? Everybody could name five NBA players. I said, “What about five major league baseball players?” No problem. “NFL?” No problem. Rap singers, movies stars: no problem. I said, “Who can name for me five Nobel Prize winners?” Out of 800, 10 hands went up. I said, “Leave your hands up, because I’m going to call on one of you.” All the hands went down. What does that tell you? Then I said, “This is the Information Age, the Technological Age. Who can tell me what a microprocessor is?” Of course, they were all wary by now, so only one young man raised his hand. I called on him, and he proudly stood up. He said, “A microprocessor is a tiny processor.” That was it. That was the extent of his knowledge. Extremely superficial.

And you know, it is a problem. This is the Information Age. It wasn’t such a problem in years past, in the Agricultural Age and the Industrial Age, but it’s a huge problem now. We produce 60,000 engineers a year in this country, 40 percent of whom are foreigners. China produces 392,000 engineers a year. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to figure out where that’s going. We have got to change that equation. It’s true that we are the pinnacle nation in the world right now, there’s no question about it. Number one, no competition, gonna be there forever: that’s what all pinnacle nations think. We’re not the first pinnacle nation; there have been others there before us: ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Great Britain, France. Number one, gonna be there forever.

What happened to them? Same thing in each case. They became enamored of sports, entertainment, lifestyles of the rich and famous. They lost their moral compass and went right down the tubes. And some people say that can’t happen in this nation, but I think an honest appraisal would demonstrate that it’s already in the process of happening. The real question is, can we stop it? Can we be the first pinnacle nation in the history of the world to learn from those who preceded us, and to do something about that?

That really is the challenge for your generation: to be able to think out of the box, to be able to stand up for the real values, the things that made this into a great nation. I want you to think about how this nation came about and the reason why I think we can be different and not have to follow that course. This nation was born out of a bunch of ragtag militiamen who were able to defeat the most powerful empire on earth. It was a time when people helped each other, cared about each other. When somebody’s fence blew down, everybody came and helped him fix it, somebody’s barn blew down, everybody came and helped him fix it. People cared about other people’s children. There was a sense of caring.

I want you to think back on World War II. Nations of the world falling like dominoes, one by one, before tyrannical forces about to bring the whole world under subjugation and tyranny. Except for one thing, this nation, the United States of America, a nation with the ability to send its young men from the cities, the suburbs, the country to fight a war on two fronts of the world. A nation 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 industrial might, changed the course of the world.

That’s the nation that you live in, that you’re a part of. It’s not an evil nation, as some people would characterize it. It’s a nation that has done more good with its power than any other and a nation whose potential has not yet been realized – unless we give it away. Unless we forget who we are. Unless we become intimidated and afraid to speak up for what we believe.

What happened in Nazi Germany? I daresay the vast majority of German people did not believe what Hitler believed. But they didn’t speak up, and you see what the result was. It reminds me of a story of a very successful businessman who would always buy these incredible gifts for his mother on Mother’s Day. He would buy these things that no one else could find and he would go and say, “Mother, what did you think of that?” And she would be so thrilled. He had run out of gifts, but he found these birds, and they were incredible birds. They could sing, they could dance, they could orate and give wonderful speeches. So he bought two of them and he sent them to his mother. He couldn’t wait to get back and find out what she thought about these birds. When he got there, he said, “Mother, Mother, what did you think of those birds?” She said, “They was good.” He said, “You mean you ate them? But Mother, those birds could sing, they could dance, they could give orations!” She said, “They should have said somethin’.”

That is basically what I saying here: we cannot idly sit by. If you believe in something, you need to say something. We need to talk about it. And we need to talk about the good things in this nation. We need to emphasize those things, and it will make all the difference in the world.

Well, there I was languishing at the bottom of my class, and, fortunately, there was one person who believed in me, and it was my mother. She would always say, “Benjamin, you’re much too smart to be bringing home grades like this.” I brought them home anyway, but she was always saying that. She was encouraging me. One day she came home after having asked God for wisdom to know what to do to get her young sons to develop their intellect. She said, “Two to three TV programs during the week, that’s all you can watch, and with the rest of that spare time you have to read two books apiece from the Detroit Public Library and submit to me written book reports.” Which she couldn’t read, but we didn’t know that. She’d put little check marks and underline and highlight stuff, and we’d think she was reading them.

Even though I didn’t like it in the beginning, after a while I began to enjoy it, because we lived in a desperately poor neighborhood, but between the covers of those books I could go anywhere, I could be anybody, I could do anything. I began to imagine myself conducting experiments, discovering new galaxies. 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 those students who used to call me dummy. The same 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.

It tells you something about human potential and what exists and what is locked up there and what we can do with it — you know, the human brain. Billions and billions of neurons, hundreds of billions of interconnections. It remembers everything you’ve ever heard, everything you’ve ever seen. And, by the way, you cannot overload the brain. Don’t let anybody tell you that. Take it from me, a brain surgeon. It is absolutely impossible. Your brain can process more than two million bits of information per second. Once I began to understand these things, my life began to zoom. I could go on for a long time, but this is a graduation, and you’re getting your diplomas, so I’m going to stop. But I want to tell you a story about a young girl.

She was on a swing in a schoolyard in Connecticut. She fell off that swing and hit her head and had a grand mal seizure. Nobody got too excited; they said it was a post-traumatic seizure, happens all the time. But the next week, she had two seizures, the next week three, pretty soon three a day, 10 a day, 30 a day, 60 a day. The doctors in Connecticut didn’t know what to do. They sent her to the doctors in New York, who didn’t know what to do. They sent her to the doctors in Boston, who didn’t know what to do. There was an old doctor there who said, “She looks like someone with Rasmussen’s encephalitis.” And he said, “With this disease, the brain will continue to deteriorate, the seizures will get worse and worse. Eventually you’ll have to put her into an institution, and eventually she will die. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

But the mother was one of those people who would never say die, never give up. She went to the library, read everything she could about encephalitis, read about some of the work we were doing at Hopkins with a procedure called cerebral hemispherectomy, where we remove half of the brain to stop intractable seizures in children. They brought the girl down for an evaluation, and my colleagues and I felt that she was in fact a candidate for that operation. But when I explained to the parents the risk of surgery – that she might not be able to speak, she might be paralyzed on one side, she might be in a coma, or she might die – they said, “Thank you, Doctor, but no thanks. You see, we couldn’t live with ourselves if she were in a coma or she died and we never even had a chance to say good-bye.”

So they took their little girl, seizures and all, back to Connecticut. That Christmas, she was in a play and while she was on the stage she had a grand mal seizure, fell down, arms and legs jerking, eyes rolled back, foaming at the mouth, incontinent of urine. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. They brought her back and wanted the operation. I performed the operation – took out the left half of her brain. Everything went smoothly except for one thing. She didn’t wake up at the end of the operation.

She remained in a coma, a day, two days, three days. Every time I went by the room the parents were there grieving, feeling guilty. A week went by, two weeks. She used to love Mister Rogers. They would play tapes of Mister Rogers singing and saying poetry, but it didn’t wake her up. Three weeks went by: still in a coma, off the respirator. Mister Rogers heard about her, brought his puppets to her bedside, tried to wake her up. It didn’t wake her up. Four weeks went by, a whole month. It was two in the morning. Her dad was lying on a cot next to her bed, and she said, “Daddy, my nose itches.”

He was so thrilled he jumped up – “She talked! She talked” – and ran out in the hallway. All he had on was his underpants. Everybody came to see what all the commotion was. There she was, scratching her nose. That was the beginning of a rapid recovery. In no time, she was walking, she was talking. She wasn’t having seizures. Now it was time to go back to school, and they were worried. How would she be able to perform mathematics? She was missing the left half of her brain, the side that allows you to calculate. But that little girl was so determined that she worked so hard that the next year, she had the highest math average in her class.

She did that with half of a brain. Can you imagine what is possible with a whole brain and determination? That’s what I mean when I say, “Think big.” Each one of those letters means 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. We must [do this], it’s absolutely crucial to the security of our nation: use your sphere of influence wherever you are to push educational development in our nation.

The H is for honesty. Lead a clean and honest life. You don’t put skeletons in the closet. You put ’em there, they always come back to haunt you just when you don’t want to see them. If you always tell the truth, you don’t have to remember what you said three months ago.

The I is for insight, which comes from listening to people who have already gone where you are trying to go. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Learn from their triumphs and learn from their mistakes.

The N is for nice. Be nice to people, because once they get over the suspicion of why you are 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? Just raise your hand right where you are. All hands up, everybody! If the person beside you doesn’t have their hand up, you may kick them, okay?

Now you have to be nice to everybody for one week. That means members of your family, too. Everybody, for one week. Now, what does that mean? It means no talking about people behind their back for a week. (I realize some people will stroke out.) You see somebody struggling, you’re going to help them. Men, it means we’re bringing chivalry back. Hold the chairs for the ladies, open the doors for the ladies. Ladies, it means you’re not cursing them out when they do that. If there’s only one spot on the elevator, you’re letting somebody else get on, 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 may have to practice CPR, but speak to people. Speak to janitors, speak to maids, speak to security, speak to people you walk by and act they don’t exist. Because they do exist and they have feelings just like you – and what would your life be like if they weren’t there?

You’re going to get in your car, and the parking lot is completely packed – 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 ’em 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 a nation could we have if we all thought about others first? There was a time in our history when we used to do that, and I think we can do it again.

The K is for knowledge, the thing that makes you into a more valuable person. Do I have a big house? Yes. A lot of cars? Yes, I like fast cars. A lot of things that Robin Leach thinks are important? Yes. Are they important? No, they mean nothing. If they all disappear tomorrow, I don’t care, because I can get them all right back almost immediately with what’s up here [points toward brain] – or at least I could before managed care. That is what Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, meant when he said, “Gold, silver, and rubies are nice, but we treasure far above those things knowledge, wisdom, and understanding,” because with those he knew you could get all the gold, silver, and rubies you want. More importantly, you come to understand those things don’t amount to a hill of beans, and 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, the mechanism for obtaining that knowledge. You know, it’s never too late. My mother did teach herself to read. She got her GED, she went to college. In 1994 she got an honorary doctorate, so she’s Dr. Carson now, too. 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 – people who cram, cram, cram before a test, sometimes do okay, and three weeks later know nothing. (I’m sure none of you knows anyone like that.) We cannot afford that.

The last letter, G, is for God, who is rapidly becoming politically incorrect in our nation, and I believe that’s a huge mistake. Some lawyers came to us a few years ago and they said, “You can’t put your Think Big banners up in public schools, because the G stands for God, and the First Amendment says there can be no government-sponsored religion.” I reminded them that the First Amendment also says there can be no government suppression of religious expression. We had a rather vigorous argument, and I suggested that we resolve it at the level of the Supreme Court. This seems like a bold and reckless statement, but it really wasn’t, because I knew the very next day I was going to the Supreme Court to receive the Jefferson Award. I figured I would ask while was I there, and I did. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said they were all wet, they had no idea what they were talking about, they had no idea what separation of church and state meant, and of course you can put them up.

People who say silly things like that – I wonder how much they really know about our nation. Do they realize that our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, talks about certain unalienable rights given to us by our creator, aka God? Do they realize the Pledge of Allegiance to that flag says we are one nation under God, that in most courtrooms in the land on the wall it says In God We Trust? That every coin in your pocket, every bill in your wallet says In God We Trust?

So, if it’s in our founding document, it’s in our pledge, it’s in our courts, and it’s on our money, but we are not supposed to talk about it – what in the world is that? In medicine we call it schizophrenia. Doesn’t that explain a lot of what’s going on in our nation today? We need to make it perfectly clear that it is okay to live by Godly principles: of loving your fellow man, of caring about your neighbor, of developing your God-given talents to the utmost so that you become valuable to the people around you, of having values and principles that govern your life. And 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. Congratulations and Godspeed.

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