I recently returned from my twice-annual trip to Deep Springs College as a Trustee. The unique school demonstrates how communities are created intentionally and why it is so important they be sustained by a sense of mission.
The school is unlike any other. It is highly-selective, full-scholarship, and located on a student-run cattle ranch.
Although it historically has been all-male as well, the governing board has voted to transition to co-education. The Trustees had considered the subject now and again, inconclusively. Recognizing the significance of the matter, we set up procedures for deliberation which included listening sessions with stakeholders around the country before ultimately passing the resolution to move forward. Due to the objections of a single Trustee, court proceedings are pending.
The school emphasizes the pillars of academics, labor and self-governance. With only 13 students in an entering class, it is distinctive for its isolation in the high desert not far from Death Valley.
Deep Springs was founded in 1917 by entrepreneur L.L. Nunn, an innovator in the transmission of electricity over long distances. As depicted in the enormous painting hanging in the Main Room, Nunn brought power to Niagara Falls. An engineer dissatisfied with the training for his profession, he became an educational reformer before his time.
His goal was to prepare his charges for a lifetime of service leadership, before that term had been invented. He founded a sister institution, the Telluride Association, which hosts summer programs for high school students and maintains houses at Cornell and Michigan.
Offering a two-year liberal arts curriculum, Deep Springs attracts students with the most impressive academic credentials who are willing to give up alcohol, television and even leaving campus during term. After they finish their stint in its mile-high valley, they typically transfer to such places as Harvard, Yale, Brown, Chicago, Swarthmore and the like.
I enjoy the journey to Deep Springs, traveling across the infinite landscape of the American West. It is arid, with its own allure. Humphrey Bogart's early noir The Petrified Forest and Spencer Tracy's late thriller Bad Day at Black Rock were filmed in this frontier area. It looks like where a desperate shoot out would happen, as it does at the end of each of those movies.
The nearest town is Bishop, about 3,600 in population, an hour away, home to "mule days" -- an annual festival honoring the pack animal. The World War II internment camp at Manzanar is down the road from there; the site was selected because it was suitably desolate. Until a few years ago, the telephone service to Deep Springs was unreliable. On a windy day, it could become impossible to communicate with the outside world.
When I arrive, the Board meetings begin for me with the Safety Committee. Everyone gathers to review all the accidents and almost-accidents since the last convening. The incidents range from serious mishaps to common sickness. The appointment of a student safety czar has reduced emergency room runs to the point of mock yearning for more blood and panic.
The agriculture enterprise is educational and as a matter of course presents all of the real risks that few city dwellers encounter on a daily basis. A student of mine from my stay as a short-term teacher remains famously the one who was crushed when a milk cow fell on him; he survived unscathed to become a Rhodes Scholar. I almost drove the metal spike of a gopher trap through the hand of a student during a "labor party" that brings them together with Trustees to toil on the soil, as is for the best for all concerned. While en route to milk cows early in the morning, I tumbled straight over a hay bale I could not see in the dark. These moments could not be improved upon, as preparation for the "real world."
Everyone takes their meals communally in the BH when the bell summons. They often eat meat from animals they helped birth, bottle fed, named, and nurtured. They plant, harvest, slaughter, and butcher their sustenance. The milk is raw; the table scraps are dumped into the slop bucket to feed the pigs. Diners have a sense of the intimate cycle that brings food to the table, all but lost to consumers in the modern era. BH patrons are called upon for their turn producing multiple courses to nourish more than four dozen people hungry from physical exertion.
For the duration of my association with the school, the leisure reading in the BH restroom has been Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics. I've managed to read a few pages. The same beat-up copy has been sitting on the industrial aluminum shelf for more than a decade. Somehow that assures me of the steadfast level of mental engagement.
Evening entertainment consists of public speaking and other performances in the Main Room. Everyone turns out; most demonstrate their talent eventually.
There usually are children around, raised by parents who are among the Renaissance people who make up the faculty and the staff -- in Deep Springs lingo, "the staffulty." The dogs enjoy a paradise, free to roam.
My interludes at Deep Springs compel me to consider how to improve as a person. In the valley, public space is meaningful, and correspondingly, private space must be respected. Everyone understands immediately that they have no choice but to interact with everyone else on closer terms than in any metropolis. You are forced to be the conscientious person you ought to be, whatever your personality or politics.
If you don't clean up after yourself, you will see the consequences. So will everyone else. Unless you intend to make yourself miserable, you cannot be a jerk. You are not anonymous.
Thus, you witness participatory democracy in action. It functions as it should ideally, because rights and responsibilities correspond more than rhetorically. People enjoy the benefits and bear the burdens of the decisions they make as a group and the actions they take as individuals. The student body is entrusted with choosing whom to invite to join them; virtually every applicant who is accepted in fact matriculates. They are involved in every aspect of operations. They even select the faculty, negotiating the teaching assignment.
Students are smart and thoughtful. It is easy to forget they remain teenagers who may not bother to bathe regularly. They discuss the Socratic dialogues Lysis (on friendship) and Phaedrus (on love) as casually as they do pop music and the latest movies brought back on DVDs from breaks.
There are only about a thousand alumni -- total, ever. Deep Springers are loyal. Students return as not only professors but also cooks, farmers, and mechanics. They continue to make the pilgrimage to where they once castrated bulls, cleaned out the septic tank, took up playing the piano, read all of the volumes of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, and studied population genetics by conducting a field survey.
The strong relationships formed under such intense circumstances are the type you resume even after a long period out of contact. There is always an authenticity to conversations that arises only with commitment to a community of this nature. Strangers who belong to this network are welcomed as friends. That is the mutual expectation.
We are prone to romanticizing any place to which we see only on occasions that are special. Such sentiments do not feel inappropriate in this instance.
Descriptions of the school invariably make it seem strange, almost alarming to the parents who drop off their gifted progeny at the gate displaying the "swinging T" brand (as impressed by the hot iron on the cows). To the contrary it is perfectly normal, to anyone who has been able to spend significant time around the Main Circle where the stars radiate as in a photograph every night.
I consider myself very lucky to have this opportunity to be included, since I am not a graduate. Even when I am not present at Deep Springs, I am reminded by its example of the importance of being a decent human being.
PS A great new book (spring 2015) has come out about Deep Springs College and L.L. Nunn, by former President Jack Newell. http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm/ref/collection/upcat/id/1955