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Deep Springs

http://www.deepsprings.edu

  • Deep Springs is a 26-person all-male college—on a ranch in the desert—governed by its students and isolated completely from society at large. It was founded by electricity tycoon L. L. Nunn in 1917 with the goal of educating future leaders away from influence by what Nunn saw as the evils of modern society. His start-up money and subsequent donations have allowed all students at the school full scholarships for their time there.
  • What separates Deep Springs from your run-of-the-mill military academy is its students: Though they are ranchers and butchers, they are also fiercely intellectual. After completing their two years at Deep Springs, most transfer to the lofty universities many turned down in favor of life in the valley: Harvard, Brown, U-Chicago and Yale.
  • Deep Springs is one of the toughest schools to get into.  The SAT scores of accepted students generally average in the upper 700 range for Verbal and around 700 for Math. But even students with low SAT scores should apply because the school considers the essays and interview a much more important part of the admission process. Out of 11 to 15 students accepted every year, over ninety percent will accept the offer of admission.
  • Courses at Deep Springs are intensive and interactive seminars. The average class size is eight, so every member must come prepared to contribute to the discussion. As a result, students devote a great deal of time and energy to their assignments, and discussions often achieve a depth uncommon at the undergraduate level. Education is a reciprocal relationship at Deep Springs.
  • The school’s mission rests on three interdependent pillars: labor, self-governance, and academics. (The website contains a complete and fascinating description of the functioning of the three pillars. Because of the school’s isolation policy (during the seven-week academic terms, no one save the “student driver,” who makes weekly trips to town, is allowed out or in) and of the school’s small size, virtually all Deep Springers’ time at the school is occupied by the furtherance of one of these three pillars. For labor, every student takes on a specific job each term—though some last multiple terms—and agrees to spend 20 hours per week doing that job.
  • The school depends on this labor. The cattle Bickmann and McCreary lead into the Sierra Nevada are the same cattle the butcher slaughters and breaks down into steak for dinner. This steak is then prepared by the Deep Springs cooks, and then after everyone eats, the dishwashers clean up.
  • A member of the Deep Springs class of 2005 (so-named for the year of entry, rather than exit), explained, “At Deep Springs, you’re really responsible for the place and for each other. We cleaned up for each other; we cooked for each other; we helped each other when we were sick. If we didn’t do things, they wouldn’t get done.”
  • When it comes to such tasks, the learning curve can be steep. Another member of  Deep Springs  ’06, worked for three terms as “dairy boy.” During these terms, he had to wake up at four a.m. seven days a week to milk the dairy cows. He said of the training process, “You’re given this position, and suddenly, all the responsibility is yours. So, like, oh, here’s these four cows, here’s how it works, here’s what cow’s need—go for it.”
  • He quickly adds that there were always people to turn to should the cows be in real trouble. But that trouble could not be that he didn’t feel like getting up at four; there is no dean’s excuse for an unmilked udder. Most Deep Springers cite the labor pillar as a positive experience, though, not a chore.
  • The value of labor is associated less with its physicality than with its contribution to Deep Springs.  There is no time, when a student  isn’t fully aware that he is doing something meaningful to the community—or that he is  derelict in your duty.
  • But the students of Deep Springs do more than just carry out the duties given them by the school—they dictate what those duties are, indeed what the purpose of the school ought to be. Every Friday evening, the entire student body meets to discuss issues of the college and make decisions regarding its future. They discuss topics from the mundane (“Should a student be allowed to sleep in the basement of a building if he wants?”) to the essential (“Should the isolation policy be maintained in future years?”). The debate is of a high standard and the tone is very serious.
  • At the meetings, “People are actually asked to take their personal ideologies and worldviews, and put out what they think is a good life or a correct way to live, and then put that up against other people and force people into each others’ conceptions.”
  • In these debates, nothing is taken as given; if someone says an idea he has for the school would make it more “beautiful,” another will ask him not only what he means by “beautiful,” but why “beauty” is a valid justification for his proposal. The rigor of discussion leads many to question not only their philosophical basis for argument, but their manner of argument as well.
  • Students often draw on philosophical texts to support the claims or critiques they make in this debate about their everyday lives. They come ready to do so: for philosophy, there are few places like Deep Springs. Each year, a student committee (“CurCom,” for Curriculum Committee) reviews applications for faculty positions and decides whom to hire to fill the few teaching slots available at any given time. Then they work with their picks to decide which classes will be offered each term. Though the selection varies, Ward said, the central subjects, term after term, are “classic texts, German philosophy, and American and British literature.”
  • These subjects are discussed in very small classes: most have between five and 10 students, all of whom know each other’s ideas and viewpoints intimately. And because no one has anywhere to go—no parties or tech weeks to distract them—most people do their reading, intensely. What results is rare intellectual accountability: It’s hard to be flippant about your points when the people in your seminar are also those you eat with, live with, and govern with.
  • “I don’t think there’s anywhere else where 18- and 19-year-old boys make serious sober forays into the life of the mind—or at least play at it,” Bickmann said. “But the life of the mind is such an exciting thing that even play at it is incredible.”
  • An unavoidable problem, though, is that these forays into the life of the mind are available only to boys—never, regardless of qualification, to girls. Why, after all the Ivies have gone co-ed, after Vassar has gone co-ed, after Skull and Bones has gone co-ed, does Deep Springs remain all-male? Like much of Deep Springs, it’s complicated.
  • There were many serious discussions in the early ’90s about the idea of going co-ed. The momentum of student sentiment seemed strongly in favor of the move, and there was a vote at a meeting that gave preliminary approval to the idea. But when alumni got wind of the students’ decision, so many threatened to retract donations that for the students to have gone ahead with the move would have meant financial ruin. As a result, the students voted to put a 10-year moratorium on discussion of the admission of women.
  • During this period, the financial position of the college improved to the point where it might have been able to weather a retraction of donated money. Discussion came back in full force, and again, student sentiment seemed to be moving toward the admission of women.
  • Even if the short-term prospects look dim, there is a sense that, in the long run, Deep Springs will admit women. Still, while admitting that there seems to be something inherently unfair about not admitting women,
  • Deep Springs changes a little bit every year with the changeover of half the student body. That doesn’t destabilize the school.
  • One thing that does not change from year to year is the intensity of the experience; every Deep Springer talked about the shift in the mood of the college throughout the year, and the ease of getting burnt out by the end. Yet the intensity was not unabated; they managed, between their work and reading, to take time to relax occasionally.
  • Boys sit and watch movies for days; they go for naked walks in the dunes; they put on moving productions of  The Tempest. And perhaps most of all, there are “boogies”—pronounced BOO-jees. These,  are either impromptu or planned dance parties. Never have I been anywhere else where the dancing is so frenetic. In 15 minutes, the floor would be wet.

 

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