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Go West, A Life-Changing Educational Experience

Submitted by on 19 Sep 2008 – 8:52 AM Comments

Deep Spring, CA Unique College

DEEP SPRING, CA – Undergraduate schools can mean many things to students. Often a place to stretch one’s wings and revel in new-found freedoms, college life can take on a bacchanalian tone. Meeting friends, partying, and exploring sexual limits can be just as much a part of the experience as books and lectures. Many people believe that this is just another part of the growing up process necessary for future generations. But a select few yearn for something more.


Go West a life changing experience at Deep Spring, CA

Go West a life changing experience at Deep Spring, California.

Just north of Death Valley National Park, in a depression on the border of California and Nevada, lies a small and isolated ranch named Deep Springs. A place where a small group of young men manage cattle herds and alfalfa hay production, and live in a somewhat bizarrely self-governed and educational experiment project operational since 1917. It would be hard to ask for a more vivid example of rough and tumble Western living. “Cowboy” duty means something quite literal to the approximately 26 students that attend Deep Springs for two years. Whether it’s branding the cattle with an upside-down “T,” or sitting on the student committee that chooses both new students and faculty, John Wayne would even find the self-reliant conditions that these young men face a bit bracing.

L.L. Nunn accumulated his fortune by expanding AC electric power into places like Telluride, CO and other Western states. The hydroelectric plants he helped build required complex engineering knowledge, but Nunn soon realized that the highly-educated Eastern engineers he needed weren’t particularly suited to the harsh conditions of the American West. A firm believer in the self- reliant ethics of his surroundings, Nunn decided to start his own educational institution, and eventually ended up in Deep Springs where he could train an elite corps of 3 young men to develop intellectually and personally within the rough isolation of a ranch setting. After Nunn’s death in 1926, the school continued to thrive as his ideas about public service and individual responsibility had taken root in the fertile soil of Deep Springs.

Go West for movmnt

With a completely self-sufficient ranch to run, including the generation of their own electricity, there isn’t much time to worry about the everyday trivialities that fill up most of our modern lives [this sentence doesn´t make much sense to me, but I´m reluctant to change anything for fear of altering info]. Extremely limited access to the outside world forces an intense bond of cooperation. One currently enrolled student, Eli, explains that “the daily trials, tribulations, and successes of life in the valley become our world. The extent to which others are depending on you begins to define your actions. Small things, like punctuality or thoroughness become more important because one has no choice but to be mindful of them.” But these are still headstrong young men, as he notes that “there is often some sort of political tension between members of the Student Body, as we are perpetually in the business of defining ourselves as a group by way of our group decision-making. Contention can arise quite quickly in these situations.” It is this friction, coupled with the absolute necessity of resolving the conflicts in order to survive on the ranch, that seems to breed the rich character that Nunn had in mind for his disciples.

But isn’t there something to be said for the more traditional structure of the undergraduate experience? It can’t be all bad to melt into a modern setting of one’s peers, socializing and studying the patterns of group behavior. Certainly a large majority of students crave exactly that. But for the select few like Eli who find the college experience “orgiastic, insincere, and undignified,” Deep Springs offers a chance to be “confronted with yourself, and people often have difficulty reconciling their expectations for themselves and the expectations of the community with the way they perceive themselves to be actually.” There’s a loneliness correlated to the Deep Springs experience that seems to start even before they arrive at the ranch: A sense that something is missing from the everyday route to success, plus a desire to confront the challenges of life in a way that sets them well apart from the pack.

There also seems to be a sense of fatigue with fractured modern life inherent in those drawn to this place. Andrew, also a current student, feels that at Deep Springs “we clarify who we are to ourselves and to one another. Unlike in broader society, relationships at Deep Springs cannot be relegated to public, professional, or personal spheres. Differences are proximate; they cannot be pushed to the periphery. Instead, we come to know each other and ourselves across self-governance, labor, academics, and close living. And as we do so, we confuse our public and personal selves, often emerging with a more unified, consistent self.”

Go West

Ironically enough, it is this smashing together of the personal and the public, and the ability to handle those proximate differences, that makes these men ideal for the urban jungles of cities like New York once they leave. Andrew notes that “if something is awry in our valley, there are few or no others to blame but ourselves. And so the expectation of every individual to identify and effect positive change is greater here than in institutions elsewhere, where often every anonymous individual can shirk responsibility and pass it on to someone or something else.” In their isolation, strangely enough, the ability and the responsibility to be a true maverick as well as a leader of men is bred. In Andrew’s words, “many of us simultaneously desire being the outlaw and the official. We are attracted here both by the abandon of the desert and by the intentionality of the Deep Springs community.”

It is this intentionality, this well-honed sense of responsibility, that creates alumni such as Walter Isaacson who went on to become Chairman and CEO of CNN as well as the Managing Editor of Time. Or, Benjamin Kunkel, one of the founding editors of n+1, a highly-regarded New York literary magazine. Or, geophysicist Raymond Jeanloz, or Congressman Jim Olin from Virginia, or neurologist Robert Aird. With a quarter of all students moving on to attend Harvard, and over half of whom eventually receive doctorates, there is clearly something magical happening in Deep Springs. One might even call it a bit of a utopian vision for education. But Andrew is quick to point out that “utopias don’t exist; Deep Springs does. As much as Deep Springs is about ideals, it is also about concrete action. I imagine that as we continue elsewhere we will negotiate the application of the general to the specific with similar imperfection, but also similar commitment and determination.” Learning to recognize one’s weaknesses while understanding the necessity to push past them and develop the strength to get things done seems to be the correct formula for turning these highly intelligent boys into extremely successful men. That it happens at a place as uniquely American as Deep Springs is an inspiring antidote to the constant criticism the rest of our educational system receives. A return to the land, and the ideals that got us this far, seems to be a recipe for real success in this modern wilderness of ours.

Text by D. Michael Taylor

Photo-Report by Jean-Claude Finguelwald and David Martin-Castelnau