School days on Calif. ranch


Learning: Highly selective Deep Springs College has 26 students, all male, who bale hay and milk cows and go on to top four-year schools.

January 17, 2004|By Peter Y. Hong | Peter Y. Hong,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DEEP SPRINGS, Calif. - There is no ivy here in the high desert between California's White Mountains and the Nevada border, but among the cows and scrub lies one of the most selective colleges in the nation.

Deep Springs College, a two-year liberal arts school, has 26 students - all male - and occupies a 120-square-mile cattle ranch. It has none of the plush facilities common at colleges: no opulent student center, no espresso bar, no fitness center. Many in higher education have never heard of the place. Yet it draws some of the best minds in the country. Ten percent of applicants are admitted, and the combined SAT scores of enrollees average about 1500, putting them in a league with students admitted to Harvard and the California Institute of Technology.

Instead of competing with other schools to offer more amenities, Deep Springs promises hard work.

Students rise before dawn to milk cows or make hay, then head for class with dung stuck to their boots to discuss Emily Dickinson. In exchange for working at least 20 hours a week, they pay no tuition and receive free room and board.

Students also take the lead in hiring professors, setting the curriculum and choosing the incoming class. So in the afternoon, some mend fences, scrub toilets or butcher meat for dinner, while others discuss whether next semester's course offerings should include thermodynamics or Proust and criticism, or both.

The arduous labor in the classroom and fields pays off when the time comes to transfer to a four-year school. Last year's graduates went on to Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Oxford and Stanford.

Each such success affirms the vision of the college's founder, who believed that a combination of physical toil, book learning and monastic isolation would forge outstanding citizens.

Max Gasner, 19, a graduate of Stuyvesant High School in New York City, chose Deep Springs over Yale. He saw many of his peers caught up in moving from one prestigious school to the next, rather than focusing on learning.

"A lot of people who go to college don't really want to go to college, but do it because it's expected of them," he says. "For the most part, people are here because they really want to do what we do."

The only required courses are composition and public speaking. This year's elective offerings include philosophy and literature of love, geology of Eastern California, 20th-century American theater and planetary science. The average class size is four students.

"You won't go to class and find half the people haven't done their reading," says Tony Sung, who graduated from Deep Springs last year and is a pre-med student at Stanford. "You, the other students and the professor have decided the goals for the class, and you are needed to help accomplish those goals."

Deep Springs President L. Jackson Newell, who attended the college 47 years ago, likens it to medieval Italian universities in Bologna and Padua, where students hired scholars to teach them.

Hard to get into, Deep Springs also is hard to get to. It's a five-hour drive from Los Angeles. The closest place by commercial airline is Las Vegas, 235 miles to the southeast. From there, it's a three-hour ride on a once-a-day Greyhound to the stop nearest the college, outside a brothel.

A college van takes students the rest of the way - an hourlong drive over a 6,400-foot-high mountain pass into the Deep Springs Valley. In the desolate valley, the college appears as an oasis of cottonwood trees, barley and alfalfa fields and horse and cattle corrals.

Lucien Lucius Nunn, a lawyer, banker, gold mine operator and pioneer in the electric power industry, founded Deep Springs in 1917 as a refuge from what he considered the distractions of campus life: women, organized athletics, bars and money.

Nunn, an Ohio native, settled in Telluride, Colo., and amassed a fortune building power plants for mines. He decided to build a college in the middle of nowhere, with an enrollment of a few dozen students, expecting it to change the world. Nunn had earlier started a college in Claremont, Va., but disbanded it after a year when students spent too much time socializing in town.

He soon learned of a ranch for sale in the Deep Springs Valley and decided after a visit that it would be ideal for his purposes. The school was set up as a two-year institution because Nunn hoped students would transfer to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he had established a residential college.

Nunn founded Deep Springs based on "three pillars": labor, academics and self-government. He wanted students to develop an instinctive understanding of democratic principles and the need to serve society.

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