By Kathy Witkowsky
Deep Springs, California
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.
||Deep Springs student Eli Goldman - Armstrong works some of the college's
300 head of cattle.
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
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.
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).
||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.
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
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
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
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.'"
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.
||Milking is among the many chores Deep Springs students perform on
the 3,500-acre ranch campus.
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.
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.)
||Mark Taylor studies in his dormitory room, which is decorated to match
themes in Harold Bloom's book, "The Western Canon."
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.
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.
||Art instructor Justin Kim finds inspiration in Deep Springs Valley,
where the only inhabitants are the students, faculty and staff of Deep Springs College.
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.