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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

4 of 4 Stories

Deep Springs College
A little-known educational experiment in the remote California desert

By Kathy Witkowsky

Deep Springs, California

  Deep Springs student Eli Goldman - Armstrong works some of the college's 300 head of cattle.
  Deep Springs student Eli Goldman - Armstrong works some of the college's 300 head of cattle.
ONE CLEAR SEPTEMBER morning at 6:15, an hour unknown to most college students, Michael Thoms and David Hambrick began their day at Deep Springs College. The distinct scent of fresh-cut hay permeated the air, and to the west, in the far distance, the sun lit the peaks of the Sierra as the two students wheeled a small squeaky hand-truck carrying leftover milk past the school's circle of stone buildings and down the gravel road to the pig pen.

They poured the milk into the trough and watched, bleary-eyed and amused, as the pigs eagerly slurped it up. Afterwards, they headed across the road to the cow corral, where Michael slung a rope around Helga -- "She's the one with the bag that sways!" he pointed out -- and led her into the barn. There David swabbed the old Holstein's udder with antiseptic, and then the two positioned themselves on stools flanking her hind end, grabbed hold of her teats and gently squeezed.

"The first week was very painful," admitted David, 18, recalling his first clumsy efforts as "Junior Dairy Boy."

"Mike would do a bucket in about ten minutes, and it took me like half an hour! But you get used to it after that, and it's not bad at all," he said, watching with satisfaction as milk rained into his bucket.

Twice a day, every day, Michael and David earn the satisfaction that comes with milking. Meanwhile, their 22 classmates tend the college's organic garden, move irrigation lines, and push the college's 300 head of cattle around thousands of acres of steep canyon rangeland and valley pastures.

They also do scut work: cooking and cleaning, fixing fences and machinery. An "ag" school for future farmers? Hardly. Try, instead, an elite institution where two dozen of the nation's highest academic achievers -- all male, and mostly white upper-middle class suburbanites -- are getting a lesson in life, democracy and community obligation.

With an average combined SAT score of nearly 1,500, most Deep Springers could have attended any number of the nation's top universities. (And since they stay at Deep Springs for only two years, occasionally three, before transferring, most will wind up completing their education at one of them.)

But instead of matriculating at Harvard or Stanford or equally prestigious schools, they chose to become part of an ongoing and little-known educational experiment in the remote high desert of California: what Deep Springs President Jack Newell describes as "an idea, not a campus, nor a college nor a ranch. It is an education based on democratic self-governance, personal responsibility, and an ethic of service to others." Put more simply, it's based on work, prodigious amounts of it.

That philosophy appeals only to a select few. Each year, the school receives about 130 applications; 40 of those applicants are invited to complete the rigorous process, which includes seven essays and an on-site visit. Once accepted, every Deep Springs student is awarded a full-ride scholarship covering tuition, room and board, worth an estimated $35,000 a year. In exchange, each of them is expected to labor at least 20 hours a week, and often more, for the good of the school and community.

The gratification is immediate: The milk that Michael and David bring back from the dairy barn that morning will be on the tables of the Deep Springs dining hall the same day. Likewise, were Michael and David to oversleep, the community would have to forego its milk -- and Michael and David would be held accountable.

"One of the unifying things here is work," explained Michael, 19, a New York City native who, in addition to serving as "Senior Dairy Boy," also has been the school butcher, and is currently student body president. "I might not like someone, but if they put in a full day's work I don't feel frustrated or antagonistic toward them. I feel like, 'Thank you.' And they should feel the same way."

That's just the sort of statement that would no doubt have pleased L.L. Nunn, the founder of Deep Springs. Nunn, a 19th-century entrepreneur who made a fortune in mining and hydropower (and who has the dubious distinction of owning the first bank robbed by Butch Cassidy's Hole in the Wall Gang), believed traditional educational institutions weren't turning out the kind of leaders the world needed. Nunn figured he could do better. So he bought an 1,800-acre ranch (later expanded to 3,500 acres) and all the water rights in California's Deep Springs Valley.

  Students Michael Thoms (left) and John Fort bathe in the college's reservoir. All the water rights in Deeps Springs Valley are owned by the college.
There, sandwiched between the rugged Inyo and White mountain ranges close to the Nevada border, Nunn founded and endowed the valley's namesake college in 1917. The school's two dozen students (never more than 26), plus about another 18 faculty, staff and their families, are the valley's only inhabitants. They are 30 miles from the nearest town, and 45 miles from phone service (the college is responsible for maintaining its own phone lines, which means communication with the outside world is dicey at best).

They are alone, but they are alone together. And that's the way Nunn wanted it. Such isolation, he reasoned, was the best way to encourage the character development that was at the heart of his educational goal.

"Gentlemen, 'For what came ye into the wilderness?'" Nunn wrote to the student body in 1923. "Not for conventional scholastic training; not for ranch life; not to become proficient in commercial or professional pursuits for personal gain. You came to prepare for a life of service, with the understanding that superior ability and generous purpose would be expected of you, and this expectation must be justified."

Nunn was a small man, just over five feet and only 115 pounds, so it's no surprise that his hero was Napoleon. But nearly 75 years after his death, his presence looms large at Deep Springs. A portrait of Nunn looking drawn and dour -- he wasn't known for his sense of humor -- hangs on the mantle of the dining hall, and his name is invoked on a daily basis, kind of like God at a seminary.

Just hours after he finished milking, for instance, Michael Thoms was seated in an ethics seminar with eight other scruffy-looking but attentive students, puzzling through essays on love and solitude by the philosopher-monk Thomas Merton. Classes are held in the mornings, while the afternoons are generally reserved for work, nights for meetings and class assignments.

This class was called Personal Values and Social Ethics, and it is taught by Jack Newell, himself a Deep Springs alum and former professor at the University of Utah, where he specialized in the history of education. When Newell suggested to the class that Nunn had set up an isolated system much like what Merton was espousing, students wound up in an earnest discussion about the intent and purpose of Deep Springs.

Do you come to the desert -- in this case Deep Springs -- simply to listen to God, or should you come with the express intent of receiving God's wisdom so you can use it later? "It's a fine line," said second-year student Mark Kirby, "and it is a question at Deep Springs: To what extent are we undermining our intent when we're overdoing our purpose -- and actually missing the point?"

If that sounds self-conscious, even a little self-important, it is. And that's by design. Deep Springers know they are a privileged, gifted lot, and their obligation to society weighs heavily on them. The ethics class, for instance, will prepare two final group projects. For the first, students plan to critique the Department of Energy's controversial proposal to put a nuclear waste dump site at nearby Yucca Mountain in Beatty, Nevada; for the second, they will prepare an analysis of current gun-control policy. Both papers will be sent to congressional delegations and other officials.

Such deliberate calls to service aren't confined to the ethics classroom. Two nights later, for instance, Michael Thoms stood in the school's dining hall, where he and half a dozen other students were checking out the sourdough cultures each had prepared as part of their bread-making class. At any other school, bread-making, if taught at all, would likely be a "gut," or easy, course, an automatic "A." At Deep Springs, the class included a 400-page reading and recipe packet with information on the history of grains and the structure and content of wheat. But that's not all.

"Cooking is fundamentally an act of generosity," teacher Cecilia Michel Lopez told the students. "At some point during the term, you will be asked how this class prepares you for leadership," she warned. "And that's a serious question."

Bread-making? Leadership? Only at Deep Springs.

"Deep Springs is a very introspective place, and it's a place where people live very self-consciously," acknowledged Newell. "But the thing that keeps it from being kind of an airy place that floats off into the ozone is the fact that we all have serious work to do here." In a very literal sense, the farm and ranch aspect of the school keeps it grounded. There's extensive debate about just about everything at Deep Springs, Newell said, "but there's a practical deadline that says, 'Well, it's time to decide.'"

  Milking is among the many chores Deep Springs students perform on the 3,500-acre ranch campus.
  Milking is among the many chores Deep Springs students perform on the 3,500-acre ranch campus.
In keeping with the school's goal of promoting articulate leadership, all students are required to take public speaking and composition. The rest of the course offerings change every 15 weeks but attempt to expose the students to as broad and challenging a liberal education as possible.

That is accomplished by a continually revolving faculty door: Teachers, many of whom are on sabbatical from other institutions, stay a maximum of six years. Many visit for a semester or two. This fall, Rick Jerrard, an emeritus math professor from the University of Illinois, is teaching set theory.

In addition to the ethics, composition, public-speaking and bread-making classes, recent course offerings included linear algebra, painting, botany, Greek history and the history of the First Crusade. Students also may take music instruction from a teacher who visits once week.

Farm and ranch duties are supervised and dictated by a professional farmer and rancher, who make the financial decisions that keep the school's agricultural interests economically self- sustaining (the ranch has an annual budget of about $80,000). But when it comes to the school itself, the students wield a remarkable amount of power. Newell was quick to insist that students do not completely "run the place," as the popular phrase goes, but the fact is that they very nearly do.

Each student serves on one of four main committees, and weekly student body meetings are mandatory. Through this committee process, students contribute to every aspect of life at Deep Springs. They make recommendations about who to accept for next year's incoming class; whether to allow current students to return for a second year; who to hire; and what courses to offer. They discipline each other and even have to approve articles like this one.

A student-run curriculum committee also has to weigh in before anyone can take more than the usual three courses. Such requests are taken seriously, because the more classwork a student has, the less likely he will be able to fulfill his community obligations. So the students don't cut each other much slack.

At a "Cur-Com" meeting in September, for instance, Eliot Michaelson found himself on the hot seat. Eliot was in charge of the animals. But the cattle had been getting out and there also were concerns about the dirty troughs and chicken house. After considerable discussion, and an offer by Eliot to squeeze in an extra hour of work each day, his request to add an independent study in math set theory was approved. Eliot looked pleased, but chastened -- which was no doubt exactly the intent of his peers.

"I've never realized what a luxury most people have to rage against the system," said Nick Gossen, a second-year student from Albany, New York. At Deep Springs, he noted, students are the system.

"If there's anything you learn to deal with at Deep Springs it's probably meetings!" said first-year student Sam Houshower, who had been to his share since the school year began in July. No doubt plenty of people would argue that all these meetings are a fine preparation for modern-day life (especially if the students wind up in academia!). But there's a difference: In the outside world, people go home after those meetings. At Deep Springs, that little cluster of stone buildings where the meetings take place is home -- and during academic terms, students are not allowed to leave except for medical reasons.

A strict isolation policy -- one of the few rules Nunn insisted on when he founded the school (the school also prohibits booze and female students) -- prevents them from interacting with the outside world unless they're on school business.

Such close quarters force students to figure out how to get along, and in general they're pretty successful at it. One of the most impressive things about Deep Springs is the level of civility. Students may push the envelope when it comes to personal grooming: most students bathe infrequently at best, often eschewing showers for a swim in the school's reservoir, and wear the same tattered clothes several days in a row. "It's an image thing," one student explained.

  Mark Taylor studies in his dormitory room, which is decorated to match themes in Harold Bloom's book,
  Mark Taylor studies in his dormitory room, which is decorated to match themes in Harold Bloom's book, "The Western Canon."
But considering the testosterone levels, there's astonishingly little evidence of machismo. On an old road sign behind the school's machine shop that reads: "Soft Shoulder," someone has added, "to cry on." About a third of the students are vegetarians, and the one openly gay student at Deep Springs said he hasn't encountered any harassment. When second-year student Michael Pihos was killed in a tractor accident in mid-September (the school's first-ever student fatality), the students painted a wildly colored mural of his face on the homemade basketball court. At a subsequent memorial service, they hugged and cried unabashedly. (The accident also has prompted the Deep Springs administration to examine its safety procedures.)

That's not to ignore the occasional displays of male bravado. Last spring, eight students walked 30 miles buck naked -- save for hiking boots and sunscreen -- to the Eureka sand dunes in Death Valley National Monument. They still proudly tell the story of how one incredulous driver pulled over to ask: "Haven't you heard of heat stroke?" And every year, students help brand and castrate the cattle. But in general, these guys are less John Wayne than Alan Alda (or, to put it in terms of their generation, Leonardo DiCaprio).

In part, that's just because they've been brought up that way. But in part, it's self-preservation. After all, they have to live with each other all day, every day, so it doesn't make sense to make enemies or make a scene. "You learn how to comport yourself in an honorable way," explained Jack Murphy, the college dean and a Deep Springs alum. Added Iris Pope, the school's long-time nurse and office manager: "They run into things here they wouldn't run into at other universities. They run into themselves."

Arguably, the kind of articulate, motivated young men who are attracted to Deep Springs would be leaders no matter where they wound up. "In many ways, these students are going to succeed wherever they go," said Jack Newell. "And so it's the distinctiveness of the mark that Deep Springs can make on them, the extent to which we can raise their ideals, the extent to which we can make them aware of both the problems of the world and their potential to be part of the solution [that matters]," he said.

That doesn't mean Deep Springs is a school for would-be politicians. Some 60 percent of Deep Springs graduates have gone on to earn doctoral degrees, choosing careers in a variety of professions, including government, teaching, business, agriculture. And that, said Newell, is how it should be. "I think the genius of the founder of Deep Springs was that he didn't define precisely what a life of service was. He said you've got to devote yourself to the welfare of your society and to the world, but he didn't say you do this by studying medicine or by going into politics."

A favorite Deep Springs T-shirt features side-by-side pictures of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and Deep Springs founder L.L. Nunn. "In 1917," the T-shirt reads, "two radical social utopias were born. Only one survives."

Cute. But as any Deep Springer will tell you, utopias are fragile, and Deep Springs has weathered its share of rough times. In the 1950s, it suffered through a Red-baiting president who spied on his own students. In the 1980s, a proposal to turn the school into a co-educational institution nearly ripped the place apart. And in 1995, a financial analysis predicted that Deep Springs would have to close its doors before the end of the century.

The so-called "Doomsday Report" spurred the school's trustees into action, and under Newell's tutelage, they launched into a fund-raising campaign that so far has garnered pledges and cash totalling $12 million of the $15 million goal.

Thanks in part to that money, Deep Springs is experiencing both a physical and spiritual renaissance. Last year, students moved into a new dormitory, which they decorated with second-hand furniture they bought themselves.

"They didn't want it to feel institutional, so they convinced the board of trustees to give them the $65,000 that had been budgeted," explained Linda Newell, the president's wife, who serves as a sort of unofficial den mother.

The main building, which had been constructed by the first class of Deep Springers back in 1917 and "would have been condemned" if any inspector had bothered to come see it, according to Linda Newell, has likewise been completely renovated, with Oriental rugs and leather couches.

  Art instructor Justin Kim finds inspiration in Deep Springs Valley, where the only inhabitants are the students, faculty and staff of Deep Springs College.
The best evidence that the students are excited about the place is their plans to improve it. There's talk of building new greenhouses, planting more flowers, starting a worm composting program. A mission statement that the student body hammered out this summer also reflects a '90s kind of sensibility. It calls for the school to move toward sustainability in terms of food, animal feed and energy, and to explore ways to attract a more diverse student body. It does not address the issue of co-education, which has been one of the most divisive issues at Deep Springs, and which, now that the financial situation has been rectified, the trustees are likely to take up again in the near future.

Deep Springs is well known to the handful of colleges and universities that routinely welcome its alums as transfers. Indeed, few if any schools can match its impressive transfer record. Of 14 Deep Springers who graduated last year, for instance, three enrolled at Harvard, one at Yale, two at Brown, one at Cornell and one at Swarthmore.

But among the general public, even in the neighboring communities, Deep Springs remains an enigma. One rumor reportedly floating around the nearby town of Bishop had Deep Springs pegged as a reform school for boys who had killed their mothers. When Nick Gossen applied, his high school counselor was so alarmed -- what in the world was this ranch college place? -- that she called Nick's parents.

Eventually, Nick, an accomplished pianist, turned down Harvard and Princeton to come to Deep Springs. And while he misses the cultural opportunities -- and no doubt the women -- that would have been available to him at a larger institution, he hasn't regretted his decision.

Neither has first-year student John Fort, 18. One afternoon this fall, John was working in the garden, rototilling beds in preparation for the annual garlic-planting. Taking a break to munch on a fresh carrot, the lanky, soft-spoken Tennessean talked about his dream of making the college self-sustaining. He'd begun to realize that would take a lot of work, he said, maybe beyond what was possible. "But I'm definitely interested in finding out what that limit is," he said.

"I think part of why I'm out here is to see, you know: How much work can I do? And how much work can I get other people to do? And together, how much can we get done?"

By all accounts, Deep Springs founder L.L. Nunn wasn't a man given to smiles or compliments. But if he had been in the garden with John that fine fall day, he might well have nodded his approval.

Freelance writer Kathy Witkowsky lives in Missoula, Montana.

Photos by Rod Searcey , for CrossTalk

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