Renowned pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson grew up in poverty in Detroit and was encouraged by his mother to pursue education.
He went on to become the youngest major division director at Johns Hopkins at the age of 33, and was the first surgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins joined at the head.
He has received numerous accolades for his work and service, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. After retiring, Dr. Carson turned his attention to the state of affairs in American politics and has become a favorite for the 2016 presidential race, though he has yet to announce his candidacy.
In advance of his book signing at Barnes and Noble on Monday, Dr. Carson talked about the importance of reading, the problems with our current voting system and how political correctness holds us back as a nation.
Q: Your mother encouraged you and your brother to read instead of watch television. Why is reading such an important part of a young person’s development?
A: I used to really admire the smart kids in the class. I was the class dummy. But my mother looked at the people who lived in the homes where she worked (his mother was a housekeeper). They tended to be very successful people, and they had lots of books and they didn’t watch much television. So that struck a chord with her, and she said: “You know what? You guys got to stop watching television and start reading books.” Needless to say, we weren’t very happy about that. But as I started reading the books, a funny thing happened: All of a sudden, it wasn’t just the smart kids who knew the answers. I knew the answers, too. And that got me excited.
Reading completely changed who I was. I went from the bottom of the class to the top of the class. The same kids who were laughing at me and calling me names are now coming to me and asking me how to solve a problem. And that really set me on a very, very different trajectory. Same thing for my brother, who became a rocket scientist.
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Q: You have more than 150 scientific publications to your name. Why did you decide to branch out into personal and political writing?
A: The first book that I wrote was back in 1990, and it was really an autobiography. I really had no intention of writing a book, but after the operation on the Bender twins, people started saying: “You should write a book.” And after about the 10th publisher came to me and asked me to write a book, I thought: “Maybe I should write a book.”
He laughs. Of course, Dr. Carson went on to write five more books, all best-sellers. His most recent book is “One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future.”
Q: What encouraged your most recent book?
A: Looking at the divisiveness that’s going on in our nation is really what encouraged me to write “One Nation,” because our strength is actually in our unity. And yet we have so many forces that are trying to drive wedges into every crack to create a war. A war on women, age wars, income wars, religious wars, race wars: you name it, there’s a war on it. And that is a concern. I want to make sure people understood the forces that are at play in our nation. And what we all have to do if we really want to preserve the kind of America that has done so much for the world.
Q: When you mention all these different wars that we have — the war on women, the war on race — does political correctness hold us back in any way, or exacerbate those wars?
A: Absolutely. Political correctness is a big part of that, because it throws a wet blanket over conversation. When two people are married, before they get divorced, what happens? They stop communicating. The next thing you know, their spouse is the devil incarnate. This is what happens when people stop communicating.
Q: What disappoints you most about America today?
A: Americans have become nonchalant. They’ve become uninformed. And our founders were very concerned about that. They said that the key to our system and our freedom is an informed populace. And if they ever become other than that, we will be at great risk of radical change, because it will be very possible for the manipulators to manipulate. If you don’t have a lot of knowledge, then it’s very difficult for you to process what you’re hearing. Whereas if you have knowledge, you can know history, you have perspective: then you’re a very difficult person to manipulate.
Q: Do you identify as a Republican or Democrat? Have party labels become polarizing?
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A: I’m an Independent. I would be very much in favor of a voting system in which a party designation is absent from the ballot, where you actually had to know who you were voting for and why. That would make a huge difference. I’m actually writing another book right now called One Vote to help people to understand what voting is all about. It’s not about doing what some party boss tells you to do. It’s about exercising your right to set the kind of nation you want. When you throw that away and just vote straight Republican ticket or straight Democrat ticket, you have no idea who those people are and you’re really not doing your duty as an American citizen.
Q: Many people are interested in having you run for president. What would be the advantage to having a retired surgeon as president of the United States?
A: One advantage might be that physicians, engineers, scientists are trained to make decisions based on facts, not on ideology. And this is what we’ve had for a long time: ideology.
• Who: Ben Carson
• When: Noon Monday
• Where: Barnes & Noble, 333 Collins Rd. NE, Cedar Rapids
• Cost: Free