Ben Carson and the Need for Gifted Education

Dr. Ben Carson
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Dr. Ben Carson got national attention when he spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. Many called for him to run for president, and he eventually answered that call. Even before his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, Carson was a well-known pediatric neurosurgeon, the first to separate twins joined at the head. His life story was told in a movie about his life based on Carson's book Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story.

It is an amazing story of success in spite of the odds being against him. It is also a story that has a lesson for us about gifted education, particularly in schools that serve poor minority children.

Carson's Early Life

Ben Carson grew up poor in Detroit. When he was just eight years old, his father left the family and his mother had to support herself and her two children. That wasn't easy for Sonya Carson, who had only a third-grade education. She did it, though, by working two and even three jobs. Ben Carson was not a good student when he was young. Perhaps part of the problem was that the family had moved from Detroit to Boston. Children often have trouble adjusting to a different school. But when they returned to Detroit, Carson was still at the bottom of his class - the school "dummy."

Young Ben Carson also had a violent temper. He was quick to get angry, as many young men are, who find themselves living in poverty, being taunted by classmates, rejected by teachers, subjected to racist attitudes, and seeing little hope for their future.

But Ben Carson didn't follow the path that so many poor, young men follow. He credits his mother and God for turning his life around.

What Changed Carson's Life Around?

Sonya was concerned about her children's poor performance in school, so she took matters into her own hands. She cut down on the time her boys were allowed to watch television and insisted that they read two books a week from the library - and write reports on them.

Although she was barely able to read herself, she nevertheless marked up the reports so her boys would think she had read them. The strategy worked. Ben soon began to do better in school. He also realized that he was not stupid. That realization came when a teacher brought rocks to class and Ben was able to identify them because one of the books he had read had been about rocks. Carson eventually went from the bottom of the class to the top, graduating from high school with grades high enough to earn him a full scholarship to Yale University.

Carson learned to control his temper after nearly stabbing a friend to death over an argument. Had the friend not been wearing a heavy belt buckle or had Carson stabbed his friend an inch or two in any other direction, we would never have heard of Carson, who would no doubt have been just one more statistic on poverty, racism, and violence. Carson gives credit to prayer and God for his control of his temper. He was frightened by what he nearly did and so turned to his religion and prayer to help him control his temper.

He says he has never lost his temper again.

Lessons for Life

Some people will see a lesson about the power of prayer and religion in Carson's life story. It is certainly easy to see why. But whether you want to take that lesson from Carson's life or not, there is much more we can learn from his story. The most important life lesson to me is having a positive attitude and not giving into a mentality of victimhood, which paralyzes people who find themselves in positions of disadvantage through no fault of their own. Sonya Carter could easily have complained about how her life was unfair and how it was unfair it was for her to have to work two and three jobs to support her family. She could also have come home from work, tired, and let her boys sit and watch television. That would certainly have been easier than dealing with what must have been complaints about having to read books and not being able to watch television. It would have been easier than struggling to read the book reports she insisted her boys write.

Ben Carson himself could have given in to his anger, could have justified it as a result of the taunting he experienced from other students who called him the dumbest kid on the planet. He could have adopted a victim mentality. He could have resented his mother's efforts to turn his life around in school and become a better student. He could have sought solace from other young poor kids who were experiencing similar things in their lives. He could have just given up and not bothered. After all, if there is no hope, why try? He could have given into a mentality of victimhood. But he didn't. He attributes this to his mother as well. She told him, "If you walk into an auditorium full of racist, bigoted people … you don't have a problem, they have a problem."

Lessons for Gifted Education

The lesson to be learned from Carson's life about gifted education is a significant one, one that should concern everyone, particularly those who seem to be opposed to special programming for gifted children. It is also a lesson about identifying gifted children and providing services, not just to high achievers, but to gifted underachievers as well. How different would Carson's life be had it not been for his mother, Sonya? How many parents respond as she did to their child's poor school performance? The truth is that most gifted children rely on the public school system to challenge them and meet their needs.

Is there any doubt that Ben Carson is a gifted individual?  Why wasn't his giftedness recognized in school? First, there was the issue of his poor grades. How common is this with gifted kids? Many will end up as underachievers, quite often by third or fourth grade - the same grades young Ben was in when he started doing poorly in school. Gifted underachievers are often overlooked in school, leaving them unchallenged and feeling "stupid."

Identification is also a problem with minority children as well. It's not unusual for minority children to be left out of the identification process. How many Ben Carsons are missed? Not only was Carson missed in his early years, but once he had become an achiever, he had to endure the racist attitudes from teachers in his mostly white school. For example, a teacher once criticized the white students at Carson's school for letting an African-American student do better than them academically. Carson has been awarded a certificate of achievement when he finished his freshman year of high school.

We need to make sure that gifted children are not missed, not as underachievers, not as minority students, and certainly not as minority underachievers. When these children rely primarily on the public school system to find them, to challenge them, and to nurture their abilities, we can't let them down. By letting them down, we not only keep them from the opportunities in life they deserve, we also lose what they might offer the world.

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