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{Published May 19, 2010, in the Colorado Springs Gazette}

I’m up at the white board, marker in hand, showing how mathematics can keep information secure. One of my students politely points out a mistake in one of my equations. Another sees where I am going and jumps ahead to work through some things on her own. A few minutes later, she points out a problem she’s worried about, a problem I was planning to talk about in a day or two. Shifting gears, I explain the issue. I make a mental note to update my lesson plan. Again.

If you’re really lucky in life, you have moments when you can’t believe what a great job you have. I’ve had at least forty of those moments this past semester, because I’ve taught forty classes with Air Force Academy Scholars. These young men and women are an educator’s dream. I can’t believe I get paid to teach them.

The Scholars Program is one of the best-kept secrets at the academy, perhaps because media attention tends to focus on our problems. I guess I’m complicit in that, because I’ve written pieces expressing concern about some things that went on at the academy. I think that’s OK. All of us at the academy owe it to taxpayers to constantly improve, to constantly struggle to reach the next level of excellence. But that doesn’t mean we should be quiet when something great is happening here.

And something great is definitely happening here.

The Scholars Program began a few years ago, as a way to discover and nurture the best and the brightest of the best and the brightest. Identified during their first semester as freshmen (4-degrees, in academy parlance), cadets are invited to enter the Scholars Program based on their application package, test scores, current grades, and overall demonstrated aptitude for academic success. They take special versions of the academy’s core classes together, on the theory (supported by evidence) that a community of peers promotes high-quality learning.

Cadets in the Scholars Program read the original works in their classes’ subject matter. This includes the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, Plato’s Republic, Supreme Court cases, Sun Tzu, and virtually every other text important to the creation of an educated citizen-soldier. In my case, we read the few truly important papers that created computers and computer science, papers so hard that many faculty haven’t read them. We all encounter their authors’ ideas in graduate school, but most professors, at least in the sciences, are not directly acquainted with the fundamental papers in their discipline. We know the authors by reputation, but seldom engage their ideas directly.

But not in my class, and not these young men and women. Together we face some of the greatest ideas of the 20th century, ideas that helped create the modern world. They question, they struggle, they sweat. The reading is so dense that it can take an hour to get through one page. But with lots of examples, lots of practice, and lots of homework, they get it. They get it, and they understand. They are an educator’s dream. Have I mentioned they are college freshmen?

Gen. David Petraeus (who has a doctorate from Princeton) has said that the best weapon of a soldier is not the gun, the torpedo, or the fighter jet, but the mind. Which is good for me, because of those four the mind is the only one I know how to do something with. All I can say is I’m glad these young people are on our side. It is a privilege to teach them, a privilege to learn from them.

Air Force Academy graduation is Wednesday. Should you decide to join me in Falcon Stadium (tickets are free, and an academy graduation is something that everyone in Colorado Springs should see), take a look at your program. Chances are the top graduates with the highest distinction are Academy Scholars, newly commissioned lieutenants who will rise to positions of leadership and do great things for America. You’ll want to say you were there.