College or Cult?: The Legend of Deep Springs
The most exclusive—and, by the numbers, best—college in the country is a ranch hidden deep in the California high desert. The 26-or-s0 students (the number varies every year), all of them male, must forego alcohol and drugs, engage in a minimum required 20 hours of manual labor a week, and serve, themselves, as the school’s administration, admissions office, and custodians.
This might not seem like the normal college life. It’s not, because this is no normal college. This is Deep Springs College, and the rabbit hole goes way, way down.
Founded in 1917 by L.L. Nunn, Deep Springs is a two-year college designed not so much to groom its prized pupils for the ivy leagues, but rather to “serve humanity.” That’s not to say Deep Springs doesn’t do the job, though. An estimated 80% of Deep Springs students are accepted as juniors to top ivy’s, as are the remaining 20%. They just prefer to take a little time off first. Deep Spring also boasts the highest yield rate of any American university at 81%, while only accepting 6-15% of its yearly applicants.
They accept only male students, and they put each and every one of them to work. Requiring each pupil to assume a job, Deep Springs offers jobs ranging from “Dragonslayer” (a sort of DIY-firechief), to Archivist, Labor Commissioner, and the Lord-of-the-Rings-inspired, companion occupations Gandalf and Frodo, the charge of which is to lord over the radio/telephone and Internet, respectively. On top of these jobs, students are expecting to perform at least 20 hours of manual labor a week in capacities ranging from butcher to librarian and gardener, but there is one occupation rises above the rest, in both prestige and responsibility, and it is that of Student Cowboy.
What sounds like the ultimate badass job to everyone everywhere is, and then again it isn’t. To put it simply, a student is not made a cowboy. At Deep Springs, a student is born a Cowboy. Chosen by the ranch managers, the Student Cowboy must “commit to work through the rest of the year and the summer after they graduate. The Mountain Cowboy must also return the following summer as senior cowboy to stay with the herd and to train the junior cowboy … The cowboys have the evening calving watch, from about 4:30 in the afternoon until 6:00 in the morning. They check for signs of labor every three hours … In April the cowboys supervise as the entire Student Body pitches in for a week or so to gather, brand, inoculate and castrate all the calves.”
Imagine having a full-time, AM/PM double-shift position while taking a full course load at the local, two-year junior college. Then multiply that by some number so gigantic it doesn’t even exist and you get Student Cowboy.
Beyond working, the students also carefully select their own faculty, incoming classmates, and function more or less as a completely self-governing body. Oh yeah, and they study and take classes, too.
Students are prohibited from using drugs or alcohol, but cigarettes are A-OK, and the nearest town is 45 minutes away, so girls are basically out of the question (except for a nearby brothel), as is acting like a moron and getting yourself hurt—the rich tradition of normal college kids everywhere. In fact, during terms, students are prohibited from leaving the ranch for any reason, in order to “preserve the intensity and integrity of a student’s experience at Deep Springs,” an experience that stresses the idea, in founder L.L. Nunn’s own words, that “the desert has a deep personality; it has a voice. Great leaders in all ages have sought the desert and heard its voice. You can hear it if you listen, but you cannot hear it while in the midst of uproar and strife for material things…”
So Deep Springs is crazy and full of a bunch of crazies and you’d have to be crazy to go there? Well, maybe. But every student accepted to Deep Springs receives a full ride, valued at over $50,000, leaving them to pay only “less than $2,800 per year for travel, books, and incidentals.”
And the university intends to begin accepting women, a move that is in conflict with Nunn’s founding bylaws, but in light of the school’s eccentric and hyper-intelligent stance on educational process seems long overdue.
The world outside of Deep Springs struggles perpetually with what to make of the school, but the world inside the school appears to understand it, and its place in the world, very deeply. Is it a “Brokeback Mountain,” as some have asserted, or an existential hippie commune-cult? Is it a not-so-forced labor camp? Is it a bunch of nerds rapping in the desert?
Yes. And no. And who knows? And whatever. The only thing it really is is whatever you and your handful of classmates want it to be.