GUEST COLUMN: Criticism of Missouri Scholars Academy unfair

Tuesday, March 31, 2009 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:08 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I’m writing with regard to Katy Steinmetz’s March 23 opinion piece, “Missouri Scholars Academy is expendable.” I was saddened to see such a glib mix of quasi-analysis and anecdote make it into the Missourian.

Clearly Missouri Scholars Academy is not all things to all people, or even to the 330 high school sophomores who attend each year. Many who attended with me in 2000, apparently including Ms. Steinmetz, were quick to dismiss it as a glorified summer camp for smart kids, something they enjoyed for three weeks, then tucked away into memory. Though the Academy called us to give back to our communities, maintain open minds, cultivate respectful dialogue, and be mindful of others, those lessons were inevitably lost on some of the participants. The fact that Ms. Steinmetz repeatedly refers to the experience as “nerd camp,” a term that’s apologetic at best and trivializing at worst, cements that point.

I can’t deny that there’s some small truth to what she says. It didn’t take me long to realize that most participants likely remember the program more for the fun they had than because it required us to lock ourselves into any sort of in-depth study. The opportunity to do significant mental lifting was there, but we were also free to treat the experience like summer camp and then move on. Unlike students in the five-week STARS science program, we weren’t forced to spend our time at MSA buckling down to do a major research project — and having participated in both, I can tell you the latter was by far the more enjoyable experience.

But vilifying the program because it was enjoyable misses the point. Heavy research isn’t the program’s raison d’etre. Though it may seem counterintuitive, fun — or to put it a better way, joy—is a key part of MSA’s mission. The program seeks to inculcate in students a joy of learning and experimentation, an exultation in subject matter, and a sense of intellectual community, so that these students might know what it means to pursue a subject for its own sake, outside of a preordained course of study. To that end, MSA’s organizers push breadth, not depth, of subject matter, to expose participants to as many disciplines as possible in three weeks, rather than intensively drilling them for hours and hours on a single topic. While from a purely “curriculum-oriented” point of view, that may strike Ms. Steinmetz as less than ideal, the approach does in fact serve a very specific purpose.

The exposure MSA gives participants to culture, science, mathematics, music and ideas allows them to become conversant in a variety of academic disciplines — and does so in a way that avoids, for the most part, triggering self-conscious teenage defenses against that which is “uncool.” If that requires playing a little Nelly, so be it. The program exists to give budding 16-year-old kids from all over the state, 99 percent of whom aren’t going to get a John Burroughs or even a Hickman education, an introduction to what’s out there, so that they can then choose for themselves how (and where) they’ll ultimately make use of their intelligence.

Whoever said the program “molds talented young people into the leaders of tomorrow” was wholly incorrect. What the program does is show students what’s possible, rather than telling them which path to follow, and gently remind them of the responsibility that comes with ability. It certainly doesn’t mold anyone into anything. Nor, as Ms. Steinmetz incorrectly (and far from “empirically”) surmises, is it meant as a “bribe” to convince students to stay in Missouri. If it were, the program wouldn’t include a college fair with representatives from top schools across the country. The program does give students ample opportunity to see what’s available to them at the University of Missouri, but it doesn’t force anything on them. It’s telling that Ms. Steinmetz’s slapdash reasoning manages to equate athletic scholarships with bribes, yet fails to address the validity of the speaker’s original premise, namely that MSA attendance encourages intelligent students to stay in-state. That the program does so is incontrovertible; in my case, the experience led me to apply only to Missouri schools, and after attending Washington University, apply only to Missouri jobs before attaining my current position as associate editor of St. Louis Magazine.

As Ms. Steinmetz more correctly notes elsewhere, MSA can’t be about some notion of “giving smart kids their due” — and it isn’t. Whoever made that claim misspoke. It’s simply about giving some of the best and brightest from all manner of socioeconomic backgrounds the opportunity and motivation to consider their future course of study, rather than just the present. While it's true that only 330 students get this opportunity each year, the program emphasizes the importance of bringing the lessons learned there back home, through both the Personal and Social Dynamics course all participants take and daily discussions in dorm meetings. That’s where the leadership part comes in—and why an investment in the program is a direct investment in Missouri’s communities.

Sadly, whoever made the arguments Ms. Steinmetz swatted down was either mistaken about the Academy’s purpose or failed to articulate it very well — or perhaps was paraphrased in a way meant to suit the writer’s argument. Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that Ms. Steinmetz has failed to grasp the program’s true worth. This is a program that led me, more naturally a writer and musician, to extend what I learned in my physics minor by joining the Mu Alpha Theta math club and tackling physics courses in high school and college. It’s a program that led me to devour books about cryptography and philosophy, and ultimately nurture that broad set of interests through a major in psychology and double minor in religious studies and writing, all while serving as editor of my college newspaper. And it’s an experience whose lessons I’ve repeatedly drawn upon as I’ve worked to build my career since then. Perhaps Ms. Steinmetz’s MSA experience didn’t change her life or her course of study in any meaningful way. But that doesn’t negate the experience of thousands of other participants who’ve written supportive letters to their legislators this year, as well as in 2002, 2004 and 2005, when the Academy’s future was similarly threatened by budget cuts.

It’s regrettable that Ms. Steinmetz has chosen to flippantly dub fellow MSA attendees “nerdy outcasts” and dismiss efforts to support the program as “hassling the legislature.” As she correctly suggests, there are certainly other opportunities out there for high school sophomores, and other sources of funding the program’s organizers might explore. And she’s obviously right when she notes that the Academy is not “the only place in the world where really smart kids can fit in.” But pigeonholing intelligent students as just another special interest group and suggesting that they pony up cash to attend a program that addresses their educational needs, the way “young Christians and overweight children and aspiring astronauts do,” ignores a fundamentally important aspect of MSA’s structure: Unlike so many college preparatory experiences, this isn’t something families can just buy their way into. This is not a program populated by ringers from rich school districts. The current selection process opens the Academy up to every Missouri student who qualifies, regardless of socioeconomic status or ability to pay. That’s truly something to be celebrated.

Finally, if Ms. Steinmetz was as disappointed with the academic content of her MSA experience as she claims to be, more productive avenues of communication were available to her. She could have, for instance, expressed her dissatisfaction directly to the program’s organizers, so they could consider her suggestions and work to improve the program for future participants. She could even have made sure to submit her arguments for publication well before House budget deliberations began, so those who disagreed with her might have an opportunity to respond. Instead, she chose to submit these half-baked arguments on the eve of major budget deliberations in the Missouri House, allowing little time for scrutiny and giving the program's opponents ammunition to gun down an educational institution that has stood strong for the past 25 years. That’s shameful and irresponsible, and especially disappointing to see from an Academy alum.

Margaret Bauer is a St. Louis resident and an alumna of the Missouri Scholars Academy.

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