At Deep Springs College, wood posts and wire keep the cows in their pasture,
blowtorched lines stave off the tumbleweed, and doors swing open for gatherings
or latch shut for quiet contemplation.
But there are no such borders between learning and living on this California
ranch that doubles as one of the most selective colleges in the United States.
Here, unlike at other top-flight schools, the labor is as much physical and
interpersonal as it is intellectual.
The fact that the 26 students here are all male is the least of what makes
this an unusual place. At Deep Springs, becoming men means learning self-government:
growing and cooking their own food, determining what courses they'll be taught,
voting on school rules. It's a place where students draw parallels between
a book by Proust and the job of milking cows. In the 21st century, it can
seem charmingly anachronistic and yet intensely relevant - laying the groundwork
for the kind of lifelong learning that's increasingly in demand.
About 200 students each year set their sights on attending Deep Springs,
with its 2,600-plus acres of land and 300 head of cattle. They learn about
the little-publicized school through word of mouth, a carefully targeted
recruitment package, or a close reading of college guidebooks. Of the 40
"finalists" who come visit, only 13 are admitted to this free, two-year program.
But traditional markers of competitiveness - straight As, or SAT scores
up in the ether - aren't the only factors involved in becoming a true "Deep
Springer." It takes a willingness to catch the spirit of a place that is
equal parts college and commune.
A radical experiment
Founder Lucien L. Nunn set the first class to work at Deep Springs in
1917, with students living in tents while they finished construction of campus
buildings. His vision grew out of attempts to develop engineers with a greater
sense of creativity for his mining and hydroelectric businesses. Eventually,
he set a broader goal: to prepare young men for a life of service to humanity.
To do this, he felt, they needed to isolate themselves from worldly influences
and blend intellectual pursuits with labor.
It was a radical experiment, undertaken at a time when the United States
was embroiled in war, intellectuals railed against American materialism,
and Teddy Roosevelt's conservationist influence was still freshly felt in
The eight decades since have brought more wars and social upheaval, and
the student body at Deep Springs has changed with the times - you'll see
as many earrings and laptops here as anywhere. Yet the core mission remains
as unchanged as the surrounding mountains.
Every year, students have reaffirmed their faith in the school's unconventional
ways by voting to keep its original ground rules: No alcohol or drugs, and
no trips outside the valley during academic terms except for school business,
religious observances, or emergencies.
It's a monastic way of life that isn't always easy, though perhaps it's
made easier by the fact that there's an airport in Reno, Nev., four hours
away, and "town" - Bishop, Calif. - is just a 45-minute jaunt.
Most recently, this faith was put to the test on Sept. 11, when students
struggled with being isolated while most people had the chance to "do something,"
like giving blood. But as they talked about their frustrations, many gained
fresh insights into the value of "preparing" for a life of service, even
though it sometimes means sacrificing instant gratification.
A day in the life
A day at Deep Springs reflects the constant balancing act of living in
a truly democratic, self-sustaining community. In 24 hours here, it is quite
possible that people do more critical thinking than many college students
do in a week. But the activities that prompt this thinking are varied: They
might make breakfast, write an English paper, learn to stay on a horse, and
chair a committee meeting. In this expanse of scrub-brush textures, muted
colors, and constantly moving shadows, there are unpredictable moments of
During a visit this fall, Friday morning was barely two hours old when
one of these moments occurred, marking the start of another typically atypical
day at Deep Springs.
1:30 a.m.: Uzair Kayani, a second-year student from Pakistan,
sees a new lunar phenomenon and can't keep his excitement to himself. Some
of the fellows he manages to wake up humor him and shuffle outside. On the
campus's circular lawn just a few yards away from the dorm, they look up
to see the full moon's haze arching over them.
Yes, at this school where students' average SAT score is 1500, there are
formal classes and hundreds of pages of reading to plow through each day
(or night). But what defines Deep Springs more is that the need to teach
or learn something often arises spontaneously. One evening, Dan Shu, the
student in charge of feeding the animals and keeping them in their pens,
came in to the library seeking a book about knots. Instead, a classmate there
simply showed him how to make the knot he needed. "OK," Dan said as he left,
"the heifers are depending on you."
Few of the students have farm experience before they come, or expect to
become farmers when they leave. Yet through their labor at Deep Springs,
they learn quickly what it's like to be depended on by an entire community
- even if it is only about four-dozen strong.
"The magic of the ranch and the farm is that you can debate all you want,
but the cows still have to be milked in the morning and in the evening, and
you've got to bale hay when the conditions are just right, and you've got
to irrigate the fields when the water's there," says Jack Newell, perhaps
the only college president who carries a knife on his belt. That's why Deep
Springs alumni, he adds, are usually willing "to tackle a problem, and not
assume it's someone else's responsibility."
5:45 a.m.: The campus is still lit only by the moon when David
Wax, the "senior dairy boy," and Etay Zwick head to the kitchen. They pour
the milk that's been chilling since yesterday into 12 metal pitchers for
David is happy on this cuttingly cold morning, as he wheels a small
cart down the path to the barn. "I love working with the animals," he says.
"I'm forming a relationship with the cows." For the moment, that consists
of cleaning their udders with a wet sponge.
David's interest in Deep Springs, like most people's, came from reading
about the college and talking to a "Deep Springer" in his hometown of Columbia,
Mo. Now in his second year, David is immersed in the responsibilities of
life here, and functions with little sleep.
Etay, on the other hand, is in his first year, and is adjusting to a life far different from the one he knew in Tenafly, N.J.
"I don't think I knew what I was getting myself into," he says with a
sleepy grin. When he came to visit, he mistakenly thought that the hours
he spent helping David clean the chicken coop were a "special occasion."
Even though the work is harder than he imagined, he says the whole experience
is "better than what I expected."
6:18 a.m.: Etay sits on a stool, reaching beneath Hell-Guh,
"the big heifer." It took him an hour and a half to milk her when he first
rotated into the dairy job a few days ago, but he's already got the task
down to about 45 minutes. The milk makes slicing noises against the metal
pail. His hands move swiftly to the rhythm of a John Coltrane CD.
Dan makes the rounds in a rambling pickup truck. He gives hay and water
to two horses and a mule, and then moves on to the lone bull, who is separated
from the other 19 because his owner wants him back after two years. Dan likes
to watch him eat because when he chews, his rear wiggles as if he's doing
Nearby, a cow is isolated too, but she doesn't get fed this morning.
Tomorrow, she'll be slaughtered. Some students are vegetarians, and no one
is forced to participate, Dan explains, but most volunteer at least to witness
a slaughter, if for no other reason than to face the reality of where their
food comes from.
Dan is in his second year here and is one of several in his class who
transferred, in his case from the University of Pennsylvania. Some say they
are glad to have been rejected the first time they applied, because it gave
them time to mature and better appreciate Deep Springs.
Most students complete their degrees at other colleges, like Harvard.
Rarely, they opt for an associate's degree. Since they are here for only
two years, they spend more time appreciating the sunsets than thinking about
what they miss. "I miss girls sometimes," Dan admits, but he's quick to play
that down: "When you go into the real world, everyone's like, 'Don't you
miss girls?' But most of us don't really think about it."
The issue of coeducation has bubbled up here ever since the 1970s, when
women began pouring onto once-male campuses. In the early 1990s, a commission
of alumni and outside educators gave it serious consideration, but concluded
that to be viable as a co-ed institution, Deep Springs would have to double
in size. That didn't seem plausible, since the college pays students' way
at a yearly cost of about $35,000 each.
Some students and faculty were deeply upset by the commission's findings.
But after a 1994 report suggested it was heading for financial ruin, the
factions finally started to come together, President Newell says. Newell,
himself a student here in the 1950s and a teacher in the '60s, became president
in 1995. Over the next six years, he helped to lead an $18 million capital
campaign (two-thirds of it given by alumni), which put the school back on
solid ground and paid for renovations.
Now, when the co-ed issue comes up, it's more likely to be in the form
of a proposal for opening an all-women or coed Deep Springs. Second-year
student Oliver Morrison says there's a strong sentiment that the all-male
Deep Springs works well, even though he sees the ethical concerns raised
by an exclusively male school in a society where males have historically
had the advantage. Many students comment on the camaraderie and close friendships
they form. And "the female faculty members do a good job of making gender
issues present," Oliver adds.
It's anybody's guess whether having women students around would make showering
more of a priority, but for now, schedules are packed enough that the faint,
slightly pungent smells of alfalfa hay, frying bacon, and sweat often follow
students into their classrooms.
9:30 a.m.: Six men, some with black earth caked under their
nails, gather around a table to unpack a dense chapter of James Joyce's "Ulysses."
They throw around terms like "Daedalian sophistry" with the ease one would
expect in a graduate-level class. But there are reminders that they are all
still learning. One asks about the distinction between "divers" and "diverse."
Before class ends, Uzair spends a few minutes eyeing a creased piece
of paper. It's his turn to recite a short passage of the book from memory.
He fixes his eyes just above the heads of his classmates across the table,
and slowly begins. His voice is raspy, but he does not falter or speed up
as he arrives at the last sentence: "She kissed me, and I was kissed."
At a college this small, lack of preparation for class would be excruciatingly
obvious. But it's not difficult for students to stay motivated when they
have a choice about which professors to hire and which courses they will
teach. In the past few years, these are just a few of the courses offered
by the three long-term professors, visiting faculty, and staffers: Quantum
Physics; Nietszche and Freud; Race, Religion, and Violence in American Literature;
and Ground School for Private Pilots.
"Not many students get that opportunity [to determine what's taught].
Giving me this responsibility has really helped me take ownership over my
education," says second-year student Andrew Kim.
11:00 a.m.: In the president's cozy living room, Dan and Andrew
sit like bookends at the table, with Newell in-between, facing his picture
window. The three have created a course to examine the idea of public service
through literature, and today they're discussing "The Brothers Karamazov"
by Dostoevsky. Andrew wants to talk about the difference between active and
passive love. Before long, they've touched on Jesus, suffering, and the spiritual
meaning of isolation.
The foundation for this kind of "ownership" of their education is built
during the Summer Seminar, a seven-week course for incoming students and
half of the returning class that blends literature, political theory, and
Vigorous discussions are so popular here that "if you give a lecture more
than 20 minutes long, you hear about it in evaluations," says Prof. Gary
The only required courses are Composition, taken during students' first
semester, and weekly Public Speaking, an event for the whole Deep Springs
The speeches are given in a large room in the center of the main academic
building. It's decked out with Oriental carpets, couches, a piano, and several
black-and- white photographs of Nunn. Lately, the founder's presence has
been even more palpable than usual, because the students have been giving
speeches inspired by the "Gray Book," the school's Deed of Trust and a compilation
of letters from Nunn about the purpose of Deep Springs.
1:30 p.m.: The sun has warmed the air up into the 60s as the
GL (general labor) crew saddles up the horses for a cattle drive. About eight
miles from here, they'll encourage the cows to go and chew in another pasture.
Most of the students are novice horsemen, but they're overseen by Geoff Pope,
the revered ranch manager for the past 20 years and also the vice president.
Free from labor duties for the moment, Andrew sits on the dorm's back
porch, barefoot, playing guitar. On the floor next to him, Mr. T, a giant
potbellied pig, is snoozing and attracting flies. If it was ever debatable
that the dorm here is a pigsty, the question was settled when Mississippian
Charlie Munford got permission from classmates to bring his pet to Deep Springs.
As a family and community historian, Linda Newell, the president's wife,
is quick to remind people that Deep Springs "is not just a total male environment."
Between the faculty, staff, and one spouse, there are currently 12 women
at Deep Springs.
"I have to remember I'm not the mother of 26 students," Ms. Newell says,
though she does take a keen interest in their progress. As one of them drives
by in a giant tractor, she smiles back at him and comments, "That kid has
grown so much, it makes my hair tingle."
She says the women and six children have a "civilizing effect," noting
that "it used to be a macho thing to use bad language," but now it's hardly
ever heard. "[The students] get hugs from some of the kids.... Particularly
in times that are hard, like right after Sept. 11 ..., the kids can be a
kind of healing element."
For all their responsibilities, these people know how to celebrate. On
Halloween, a faculty motorcycle gang with fake tatoos and "pleather" pants
drove their bikes right into the dining room.
6 p.m.: A hungry, tired crowd hears the call of the dinner bell
and files into the BH (boarding house) to savor roast beef, potatoes au gratin,
squash, salad, pumpkin ice cream, and sugared pecans. Tonight, the entire
dinner is homegrown.
In the middle of the meal, a whining fire truck pulls up outside, and
a few students jump and run. They've had birthdays recently, and that means
they're due for a douse with the fire hose. Everyone goes out to watch the
chase, and after some mighty resistance the three are pinned down and drenched.
Fridays on most college campuses are a time to party late into the night.
Deep Springers, too, often stay up until the wee hours of Saturday morning,
but what keeps them up is SB, the student-body meeting. A hallowed tradition
and the heart of Deep Springs's special brand of democracy, SB is off-limits
to nonstudents unless there's a consensus to invite a faculty member or visitor.
Through a modified version of Robert's Rules of Order, they review reports
and bring up issues that need to be discussed or voted on.
There are times when Newell will make final decisions or use veto power
after hearing the will of the student body. But too many top-down decisions
would take the spirit out of the place, he says. "The more responsibility
people genuinely have and feel, the more responsibly they act.... My task
is to aid the discussion and advise with a light hand, but to trust them
as much as I possibly can."
9:10 p.m.: Jeremy Bearer-Friend, a first-year student and the
SB president this semester, nonchalantly tells the group that he wants to
start off this segment of SB with a communal noise; he asks for a group "moo,"
and his classmates happily oblige. They're spread in a loose semicircle,
munching tortilla chips or knitting hats while various committees give their
Just when things are starting to drag, a controversy breaks out. A
motion to convert one of the common rooms in the dorm back into a living
space sparks a "roundtable." One by one, they all give opinions on the merits
of having common space versus less-crowded dorm rooms, which prompt other
comments about one another's sleeping habits.
To note approval of a statement without interrupting, the guys periodically snap their fingers as if they're at a poetry slam.
Tensions between individual needs and communal experimentation can take
getting used to. No one said democracy was easy. On the other hand, says
alumnus Tim Heffernan, "it feels elegant in some ways, just to have a community
running with no bureaucracy, no policemen, none of the traditional enforcers
of social order."
The relentless self-observation is balanced out by the service ideal,
and tends to carry over into the careers Deep Springers choose when they
leave. "I think everybody does want to live a life where they know they're
helping others. That does get instilled in you," Mr. Heffernan says. He graduated
from Swarthmore in December 1999 and is interested in journalism and economics.
He's remained close with several Deep Springs classmates, one who is a union
organizer, another who is studying in Beijing.
What they learn at Deep Springs is that service isn't just a legacy-size
good deed. Sometimes, as someone hinted during the SB, it's a simple matter
of respecting classmates and professors by being on time.
Midnight: After the dorm motion passes and they take a break,
it's time for the "edutainment" - the closest SB comes to being a party.
First-years team up against second-years and play a Deep Springs version
of "Taboo." They must guess a phrase based on a description that avoids a
list of predictable words.
For a moment, it could be any college dining room as these pumped-up
boys give each other high-fives and try to come up with ways to cheat.
But then it's Myer Nore's turn. After just a few words, he says "Zen
and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," and one of his teammate's shouts
back the correct answer, "The University of Chicago." Myer, a concert-level
pianist, has to explain to the rest of the crowd that the university is featured
in the second half of the book. The literary reference in the midst of a
silly game is enough to make a visitor think, "Only at Deep Springs...."
1:30 a.m.: The young men of Deep Springs sit in silent reflection
for five minutes before they adjourn the SB and spread out into the night
- to sleep for a few hours before milking the cows, to watch a video or send
e-mail, or simply to stare back as the moon watches over.
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