These days, it seems like everything is made into a political football. Perhaps the one thing we can agree upon is the importance of education for everyone.
Currently in the United States, approximately 30 percent of the people who enter high school do not graduate. This was considerably less of a problem during the agricultural age or the industrial age, when all one needed to be successful financially was a strong back and a willingness to work. Now that we have advanced to the technological-information age, education has assumed paramount importance for success in one’s own life and for the future of the country. It would not be accurate for us to assume that everyone who graduates from high school in America is well educated. Gone are the days, for the most part, when vigorous academic standards judged the passage from one grade to the next and social promotions were rarely done.
My mother, unfortunately, only had an opportunity to obtain a third-grade education prior to her marriage at age 13 and her move to Detroit with my father. A divorce ensued when she discovered that he was a bigamist, and she was faced with the task of raising two young sons on her own.
She worked as a domestic, sometimes cleaning two or three houses per day, but she was very observant and noticed that the owners of the homes she cleaned were very well educated. She made a correlation between education and financial success and began to crave education for herself and for her two sons. She made us turn off the television and read books and submit to her written book reports — which she couldn’t read, but we didn’t know that. I was rather disgruntled about these assignments, but we had to do it, so there was no point arguing.
Interestingly enough, after a while, I began to enjoy reading because I learned things that no one else knew. This was especially satisfying because previously, I had been known as the dumbest kid in the class. Within the space of a year and a half, I went from the bottom of the class to the top — much to the amazement of classmates and teachers alike.
I reached a point where I couldn’t wait to get my hands on another book and learn even more. Reading made me want to explore many of the opportunities that existed in Detroit for anyone willing to seek them out. Even today in its bankrupt state, Detroit has much to offer through its library system, fabulous museums, art galleries, universities and offerings of cultural events. There were academic contests and numerous clubs, but you had to seek them out.
The point is, even in some of the most depressed areas of America, a good education can be obtained with concerted effort. My mother eventually taught herself to read, obtained her GED, went on to college and in 1994, received an honorary doctoral degree from Spalding University in Kentucky, so today she is Dr. Carson, too.
The educational opportunities afforded me in Detroit led me to obtain an undergraduate degree in psychology from Yale, a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Michigan, specialty training in neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University and neurosurgical fellowship training in Australia, all of which culminated in my appointment as director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins at age 33. My brother became an engineer and works today for an aviation company. It is unlikely that I would become a brain surgeon and my brother a rocket scientist if our mother had not been committed to pursue education so intensely.
Many inner-city youngsters today are being entangled through choices they are making with the juvenile justice system, the penal system or the medical-social services system through unintended pregnancies. In many of these instances, educational pursuits are abruptly terminated, leaving the victims to suffer the consequences of poor education in an increasingly sophisticated society.
In the darker American period of slavery, it was illegal to educate a slave. Slave owners recognized that an educated individual is a free individual. The same is true today, and it benefits everyone in our society to maximize the education of every member of our nation. We produce 70,000 engineers per year in America, while China produces 400,000 per year. We are unlikely to be able to close that gap in an increasingly technological world unless we ensure the solid education of every American.
The added gigantic benefit of a well-educated populace is spectacular innovation and savvy voters who do not have to be spoon-fed and who are difficult to manipulate. That is something that should be highly desired by all political parties and by every nation that wants to be self-sustaining, happy, healthy and independent.
Ben S. Carson is professor emeritus of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University.