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
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 West.
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
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
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
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