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Twenty-six Renaissance Men

At Deep Springs College, top students create the foun-dation for a life of service

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 19, 2002



DEEP SPRINGS, CALIF.

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.

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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 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 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 discovery.

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