etcetera | Life & Times Electronic Telegraph
Saturday 14 February 1998
Issue 995

See text menu at bottom of page
Little school on the prairie


Life & Times


Deep Springs College (Official Site)

Deep Springs College (unofficial site maintained by former student)

Hidden in the heart of California is Deep Springs, America's smallest, strangest and most exclusive college. All of its 26 students are super-intelligent men, they pay no fees, set their own rules, recite poetry and learn to castrate cattle. Robert Templer pays a visit

EAST of Big Pine in the mountains of California the radio stations soon start to fade. Country songs of disappointed love are swallowed up in static as Highway 168 climbs the Inyo mountains through shale cliffs and sparse forests of bristlecone pine. By the time you reach Deep Springs Valley, some 50 kilometres down one of the least travelled roads in the United States, the radio offers nothing but silence.

Here, in the vast expanse of sagebrush and rock, a small patch of autumnal cottonwood trees and irrigated green fields appears like an oasis. This beautiful, isolated place is the setting for America's smallest and most exclusive college, a modern-day lyceum with a reputation for the academic prowess of its 26 students and its determinedly unusual way of life. Each year Deep Springs College accepts just 13 or 14 young men fresh from high school to study on a 32,000-acre cattle ranch. Almost completely cut off from the outside world, they receive an intensive education in arts and sciences while at the same time learning to run the ranch and the college itself.

When LL Nunn founded Deep Springs in 1917, he aimed to create a college that educated "the whole man" in preparation for a life of public service and leadership. Dismayed by the lack of practical skills among the graduates of exclusive eastern colleges he had encountered, he wanted to create men who were self-sufficient and armed with a broad array of abilities. His students were to master philosophy, rhetoric and science but would also learn such skills as castrating cattle and building fences. "It's a fact of social evolution that the few always dominate. This is because the mass is dull-witted, sluggish, incapable," he wrote. Nunn wanted to create "the leaven in the lump" of American society. His college, he decreed, would educate only remarkable students in a remarkable manner.

A diminutive and prickly lawyer who made his fortune as a pioneer of long-distance power lines and hydro-electric dams, Nunn was given to quasi-mystical musings about the desert. While living in a community of muscular utopianism, his students, he believed, should be made to feel the desert's bracing isolation. "The desert has a voice," he wrote. "You can hear it if you listen, but you can't hear it in the midst of strife and uproar."

Deep Springs has changed little in the eight decades since the first group of students themselves cut the stones for the college's low-slung buildings. It has kept to Nunn's ideas of an elite education, and still accepts only men. As American universities have been shaped by the forces of business and consumerism, this college has clung on to ideals that make it seem quaint, and occasionally somewhat sinister.

It doesn't look much like a bastion of privilege. The style is more western white trash than Ivy League. The college buildings are well worn. Carcasses of farm machinery cannibalised for spare parts lie rusting in fields, ancient trucks mounted with cattle horns lurch around the dusty tracks. There is no dude ranch polish at Deep Springs.

It's certainly a strange, down-home setting for students who rank among the most intelligent in the United States. Most of its intake have graduated from their high schools with the highest scores in standardised university application tests. Only about one in 20 applicants gets through the gruelling entrance exams, a long process of essay writing and interviews. For those who do succeed, though, the rewards are high. They pay no fees or board - the $35,000 annual cost for each student is covered by revenues from the ranch and the endowment left by Nunn and augmented over the years by alumni.

Apart from working on the ranch and the alfalfa farm, the students run the college itself, even selecting their own teachers and choosing the new annual intake. Under rules that they set and enforce themselves, they lead a spartan existence. They live two or three to a room in the dormitory block, one of a set of crumbling buildings arranged around a small circular lawn, and are summoned to communal meals by a bell. "It can sometimes feel like being married to 40 people you didn't choose," said one Deep Springs lecturer. Drinking and drugs are banned, and trips off the ranch are strictly limited, the better to focus minds on one of the most demanding educations available.

Lisa Coffman, a young poet from Tennessee, is teaching at Deep Springs for a semester. On the day of my visit, she arrives at class looking a little harried after driving through the night from Las Vegas on her way back from a conference. Her face lights up at the sight of her students waiting for class on the dormitory porch, where a collection of collapsed and bursting armchairs is arranged around a tiered ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts. Smoking is one vice still allowed at Deep Springs.

At first glance, the students seem little different from 18-year-olds at any college. They are mostly smart kids from middle-class suburban families who rebelled a little against the idea of a conventional college education. They tend to favour the scruffy, slacker look of goatees and ponytails - many just pick their clothes from a communal wardrobe of cast-offs dumped in the basement and known as the Bone Pile.

Nearly all of them have been up since dawn doing early chores on the farm. Mouths hang open in tiredness, eyes droop a little under knit caps pulled down against the glittering blue cold of a desert morning. But when the class begins, the energy level surges. Each student starts off by reciting a poem from memory, the sort of impressive but old-fashioned skill that is rare among college students in America today. Mikolaj Kocikowski, an intense Polish-born student who emigrated to Pennsylvania in his early teens, clambers up on to the table on his hands and knees to recite a poem about a dying yak. Each of them performs with aplomb, reciting lines that range from Henry V to a scatological poem about a fart smelling like the "marriage of a fish head and an avocado".

In the full flow of confident and erudite argument, you start to see what marks these students out. A conversation about the poet James Merrill skips from Swiss politics to Shakespeare, from Pablo Neruda to Brahms and the little dog on the His Master's Voice record labels. Translations of French poems are criticised and better ones offered. But, while the sharpness of these students is impressive, it is also a little unnerving; many of them use up a lot of oxygen in a room. It is hard to know if they really learn from each other or whether this intellectual sparring is just aimed at scoring points. When Kocikowski, his brow furrowed with seriousness, asks whether a Merrill poem "has beauty", another student snaps, "Why don't you tell us instead of just trying to get everyone else to affirm your opinions?"

According to the students, this rancorously competitive atmosphere is offset by the glue of what the students call "labour" - the communal daily work of running the ranch and the school that provides routine and responsibility. "You feel really guilty if you are inside watching a video or reading a novel and everyone else is out working," says Dimitriy Masterov, who moved to the United States from Moscow eight years ago. Masterov, a burly figure with a shaggy beard, has a touching pride in his vegetable garden. It has been a good year; the school's broccoli won a prize at a local fair. The students want to make the college more self-sufficient and are planning to raise pigs and plant a new orchard. "Labour" runs the gamut from organising the school's archive to feeding chickens. One of the toughest tasks is cooking dinner each night for 50 people. "Not only do you have to do it on time," says one student, "you get an instant feedback on your performance."

But while many of the domestic chores are mundane, there is one task that has a real Wild West glamour. Each year one student is picked to be the ranch cowboy. The student cowboy works closely with the ranch manager and spends the summer in a shack more than 10,000 feet up in the mountains, mending fences and looking after the cattle in their high pastures. This year it is the turn of Mihir Kshirsagar, a soft-spoken, ponytailed student from India.

Kshirsagar heard about Deep Springs via a teacher at his Indian boarding school. When he arrived from Bombay two years ago, he had never ridden a horse and was shocked when told to mop the dormitory floors. Now he looks every inch the cowboy in jeans and chaps, turning his horse in tight circles, leaning far back in the big Western saddle and swirling one hand above his head. "C'mon, girls, c'mon," he encourages gently as tons of brown bovine stupidity with names like Sunshine and Rollerskate thunder around him. Although Mihir's riding is skilled, he still hasn't quite mastered one aspect of the essential cowboy image. A cool, laconic demeanour eludes him; his bright grin betrays the fact that he is having far too much fun.

After two years at Deep Springs all students have to move on to complete their degrees during a further two years at one of the larger, conventional universities, mainly prestigious institutions such as Harvard and Cornell. Since the lecturers are themselves obliged to leave Deep Springs after a maximum of six years, the school is in a constant state of flux - only the cats, dogs and pick-up trucks get tenure. "It goes back and forth between being a brilliant experiment and a horrible one," said a former faculty member. "Depending on the combination it can crystallise into something great or it can turn dark and muddy."

All the teachers are new this year so the nearest there is to an institutional memory is the college president, L Jackson Newell, who was a student at Deep Springs in the Fifties. He returned for a few years as a young academic in the Sixties, a time when the conflicts that swept campuses found their way even to this remote valley. "The students were bitter and acerbic," he recalls, "they were anti-everything." Because many of the decisions about the school are taken by the students themselves, Newell sees his role as maintaining a measure of civility to head off the lurking possibility of its 26 self-governing teenagers spiralling down into a rerun of Lord of the Flies.

Today's students seem better natured than their feral forebears. Still, they relish stories of past conflicts. One enduring issue has been whether to accept women. The students have tended to vote in favour, but the trustees - mainly former alumni, who have limited powers of veto over certain areas of the constitution - have always voted against the idea in fear that it would irrevocably change the ethos of the place. For the moment the issue has been put aside, but the students are confident that the change will come sooner or later. In general, though, the principle of student autonomy is sacrosanct - they select the teachers, choose the next intake, even evaluate their own performance. When I asked if I could sit in on a meeting of the applications committee, one student glowered and said no. I was asked to stand outside while a brief discussion ensued; I was then invited back in. The meeting was brisk and purposeful, with an agenda written up in neat script on the blackboard.

While teachers sit on the committees, they are there mostly to offer guidance. When I visit, Jack Murphy, a former student who has returned to teach sciences, says little as the students debate the wording of questions that will seek out the views of applicants on the nature of evil, public service and the pitfalls of an elite education. The college president checks the final list of those admitted but otherwise confines himself to a gentle admonishment to students to select a diverse and challenging intake, not just those applicants who reflect their own ideas.

Giving the students such powers puts the lecturers in an odd position. "It was sometimes painful as an adult watching them make mistakes," said one former teacher. "For one thing, you have to live with the consequences. It's great, for example, that they all learn to cook, but it means you have to sit through some disgusting meals." Deep Springs is, understandably, a little suspicious of outsiders. Although it is far from secretive - it has a web site to advertise itself to potential applicants - the college has a reputation for being slightly cultish. "You know, it's not true we have to kill something to graduate," a student told me wearily, disabusing me of one of the many rumours about the place. They clearly expected to see themselves set yet again in a folksy picture of cowboys and tumbleweeds. They were insistent that life at Deep Springs was hard to explain because of the often contradictory forces at work; its intellectualism is balanced by manual labour, its isolation from the world by a tightly woven sense of community, its macho ranch ethos is offset by an environment of tolerance and humour. "Even my parents don't really know what life is like for me here," said Mihir Kshirsagar. "And everyone else back home thinks I go to an agricultural college."

The flip side of Deep Spring's high academic ranking is that it is regularly listed in the Princeton Review, a guide to American colleges, as "the worst party school in America". With its ascetic, driven routines it is certainly a far cry from, say, the big colleges in the southern states where students live for sports, beer and fraternities. It also comes high in rankings for "tolerance for gay students", "saving it for marriage", and "did not inhale". "I wasn't very sociable at high school," said Nathan Deuel, a student from Florida. "I don't think any of us were." One faculty member less charitably describes the students as "the sort of smart, unusual kids who were always being pushed into lockers".

Aware of the fact that they can come across as preternaturally serious for their years - their dinner conversation was larded with words like "paradigm" and "exegesis" - the students were keen to tell me that they do have a lighter side. They kept mentioning a favourite school tradition whereby on moonlit summer nights they slide naked down the sand dunes in a neighbouring valley. They have also more recently instituted a custom of nude spring-cleaning. Deep Springs has been accused, by former students and in college guides, of producing "misfits for life", a line several students repeated to me with some glee. I was also told that more than half of Deep Springs men never marry. Certainly, the school affects some deep transformations on the lives of young men. "The best aspect of the institution is that it allows an 18-year-old to be responsible and serious in a setting that is exotic enough for people to be able to remake themselves," said the ex-teacher. "It's no coincidence that Nietsche is such popular reading there. It's all about self-fashioning. They take things like that very seriously."

Such intense times, though, surely risk disappointment for the students - that all this fervour will fall flat, or that, after their brief moment in the sun, they may never have it so good again when they go off to one of the larger colleges to complete their degrees. It is interesting to note that, while LL Nunn may have wanted to train pioneers, engineers and entrepreneurs, Deep Springs students are now more likely to end up as college professors. There is a smattering of congressmen and public servants among the alumni, but more than half of the 650 former students have doctorates, not in itself usually seen as a mark of great leadership.

"The emphasis has moved too far over towards the academic side," complained Casey Sanchez, the only Hispanic student at the college, who said he would like to see a greater emphasis on the founder's social aims. Amid the relentless self-examination at Deep Springs, there seems to be a nagging sense that Nunn's romantic view of how to encourage leadership and public service may be hopelessly anachronistic. Perhaps the best summary of Deep Springs today comes not from Nunn's distinctly 19th-century utopianism but from a student essay in the college prospectus: "There is no final philosophy connected with Deep Springs; only that you find your own."

Next report: Why Chris Moon keeps on running

mailto: Etcetera
etcetera | A-Z/Help | Search | Classified | Electronic Telegraph

Arts & Books | Connected | Expo | Fashion | Food & Drink | HomeFront
Horoscopes | Lingua Franca | Motoring | Obituaries | Opinion | Science | Travel

© Copyright Telegraph Group Limited 1997. Terms & Conditions of reading.

Information about Telegraph Group Limited and Electronic Telegraph.

"Electronic Telegraph" and "The Daily Telegraph" are trademarks of Telegraph Group Limited. These marks may not be copied or used without permission. Information for webmasters linking to Electronic Telegraph.

Email Electronic Telegraph.