A story from Ben Carson’s college days recounted in his 1990 autobiography Gifted Hands tells of a “hoax” test in which he was eventually named the most honest student in the class. Journalists have challenged the story, and Carson has fired back with evidence of his own.
In Gifted Hands, Carson writes of a “low point” in his life due to finances. He was further stressed at that time when he learned that an exam he had taken two days earlier in a class called “Perceptions 301” was “inadvertently burned” and had to be retaken.
He attended the makeup test with “about 150 other students” in an auditorium, where his classmates quickly groaned at the difficulty of the questions on the new test, and several began walking out. 50 were gone within the first 10 minutes. That number quickly rose until Carson sat all by himself in the auditorium. “I was tempted to walk out,” Carson wrote, “but I had read the notice, and I couldn’t lie and say I hadn’t.”
His professor then “noisily” opened the door and walked over to Carson with a photographer for the Yale Daily News by her side. When Carson asked what was happening, the professor replied, “A hoax. We wanted to see who was the most honest student in the class. And that’s you.” The professor then handed Carson a $10 bill.
In a November 6, 2015 piece by Reid J. Epstein at the Wall Street Journal, Carson’s account above was challenged. Epstein wrote, “No photo identifying Mr. Carson as a student ever ran, according to the Yale Daily News archives, and no stories from that era mention a class called Perceptions 301. Yale Librarian Claryn Spies said Friday there was no psychology course by that name or class number during any of Mr. Carson’s years at Yale.”
On November 8, 2015, Carson responded to the Wall Street Journal article via two Facebook posts.
In response to the claim that a class called “Perceptions 301” didn’t exist, Carson offered a 2002 syllabus for the class Psychology 323b, which is titled “Perception.” His post included the caption, “Allow me also to do the research for the Wall Street Journal reporter. Here is a syllabus for the class you claim never existed. Still waiting on the apology.”
In a separate post, Carson offered a newspaper clipping which discussed the hoax test mentioned in Gifted Hands.
“The magazine also announced in the substitute NEWS that a series of Psychology 10 exams were destroyed and stated that a makeup would be held at 7:30 last evening.
A false exam held in 203 WLH was attended by several students not aware that the replacement exam was a hoax. The exams distributed to the group closely resembled the psychology exam given on Monday morning.
The only identification of the parody’s source was on the masthead, located on page two of the paper.”
Once again, Carson suggested an apology was due, but that it would not happen.
“On Saturday a reporter with the Wall Street Journal published a story that my account of being the victim of a hoax at Yale where students were led to believe the exams they had just taken were destroyed and we needed to retake the exam was false. The reporter claimed that no evidence existed to back up my story. Even went so far as to say the class didn’t exist.
Well here is the student newspaper account of the incident that occurred on January 14, 1970.
Will an apology be coming. I doubt it.”
Despite Carson’s attempts to debunk the naysayers, there are a few key points of his story which some readers feel cannot be reconciled with his evidence.
- Carson wrote that 150 students showed up to take the hoax test, while the clipping described it as “several students.”
- The paper referred to the class as Psychology 10, not Perceptions 301. A 2002 syllabus doesn’t prove (or disprove) that “Perceptions 301” was taught in the early 1970s.
- Carson’s post indicates that the incident was covered by the newspaper in January 1970, when Carson would have been a Freshman (he graduated high school in 1969). The story in Gifted Hands states that the incident occurred during his Junior year.
- The paper writes that “the exams distributed to the group closely resembled the psychology test given on Monday morning,” while Carson said the questions were much more difficult.
- There is no mention of the professor’s plan to find the most honest student, the $10, or Carson (or his photo) in the article.
Those who give Carson the benefit of doubt point to possible explanations regarding the points above, including:
- “Several” students could still refer to 150.
- It is possible that Psychology 10 was also referred to as “Perceptions” in the same manner as the 2002 syllabus, and Carson may have erroneously remembered a “301” suffix. In an interview with ABC, Carson clarified the inclusion of the “301” course number: “You know, when you write a book with a co-writer and you say that there was a class, a lot of times they’ll put a number or something on it just to give it more meat. You know, obviously, decades later, I’m not going to remember the course number.”
- Carson may have simply mistaken the year in which this occurred, which was during his Freshman year, and not his Junior year.
- Although the questions may have resembled the original test, they still could have been more difficult.
- The professor could have been “in” on the hoax with the newspaper, but her exchange with Carson about being the “most honest student” simply wasn’t mentioned, nor was the photo taken of Carson used.
Update: On November 9, 2015, BuzzFeed reported that a former staffer for the student newspaper confirmed many of the details recounted by Carson.
“When I read about the story in the Wall Street Journal, I immediately said, to my wife and friend, ‘That was the prank we played at the Record! And Ben Carson was in the class,’” said Bakal, who noted he wasn’t actually present during the taking of the fake test. “We did a mock parody of the Yale Daily News during the exam period in January 1970, and in this parody we had a box that said: ‘So-and-so section of the exam has been lost in a fire. Professor so-and-so is going to give a makeup exam.’”
It would appear that Ben Carson did recount a real event which occurred at Yale in the early 1970s, although – despite Carson’s evidence – the details are still debated. Could Carson have simply remembered some details incorrectly, or did he embellish them in his biography? Although Carson’s evidence is unlikely to appease his detractors, there are those on both sides of the political aisle who have suggested that a 45-year old college story recounted 25 years ago has little relevance in the 2016 Presidential election. It has also been suggested that the veracity of such stories could be key to determining Carson’s character.
What do you think about this story?