Twenty-six Renaissance Men

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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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.

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 breakfast.

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 a dance.

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 philosophy.

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 Gossen.

The only required courses are Composition, taken during students' first semester, and weekly Public Speaking, an event for the whole Deep Springs community.

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 reports.

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.

• E-mail: teichers@csps.com.

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