Sitting in a booth with five Deep Springs transfers is equivalent to huddling with a quarter of the school’s entire student body. As they shift awkwardly on the hard booth benches of a basement eatery, it’s hard to picture them against the backdrop of mountains and desert brush. All of them have operated heavy machinery and tended alfalfa fields, milked cows and butchered them. They’ve lived in the desert for two years and retained enough momentum to leap back into society.
Charles Pletcher, Brown class of 2011 and Deep Springs class of 2007 (Deep Springs students are labeled by their matriculation year), is two weeks into his first semester at Brown after a semester off in California. He’s sitting across the table, elbows pulled in close, awkwardly sawing at an eggy crepe. Sam Allen, DS ’06, is on his right. He keeps brushing his hair out of his eyes and glancing anxiously from side to side, occasionally turning all the way around to scan the room behind him. Michael Lubin, DS ‘06, looks more at ease, leaning back in the wooden chair he has pulled up to the booth and grinning. Brian Judge and Nate Sibinga, both DS ’07, don’t seem thrilled by our close quarters. I can feel their energy humming.
Deep Springs College is an all-male two-year institution. The brainchild of L.L. Nunn, it was founded on an operating cattle ranch and alfalfa farm in California’s High Desert. In Nunn’s utopia, students practice manual labor, self-governance, and a Socratic style of learning, far removed from the distractions of material society.
Lucien Lucius Nunn’s twin brother Lucius Lucien died unexpectedly at the age of three. L.L. later pinpointed this trauma as the source of his lifelong sadness and loneliness—it may have served as inspiration for a male-centric community. It is impossible to graduate from Deep Springs without knowing all of one’s classmates intimately. Michael explains, “Nowhere else would you get to know people you don’t like so well.” Contact with the nearest outpost of civilization, the small town of Bishop located 40 miles away, is strongly discouraged. This extreme isolation fosters deep connections—both to the desert and between the students who live and work there.
Deep Springs has a radically conservative code of social conduct—alcohol, drugs and girlfriends are strictly prohibited, except on interterm breaks. Surprisingly, these rules are enforced by the students themselves. Students pay no tuition, room, or board. They earn their keep through labor.
An Unlikely Pairing
Deep Springs has long been the object of media attention. This is partially due to its history of ushering its graduates into some of the highest-ranked institutions in the country. Until Harvard stopped accepting transfers, it was a favorite Deep Springs’ postlude. These days students transfer to Yale, Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and, in the greatest numbers, to Brown. Currently, Brown has seven Deep Springs transfers.
The most popular explanation for the magnetic attraction between these schools and Deep Springs is that they all attract a specific “type,” a self-selecting category of young men who can’t handle the convention of a traditional university at age 18, and at age 20 can only stomach notoriously unstructured elite institutions.
However, Brian Judge argues that the decision to go from Deep Springs to Brown isn’t necessarily so weighty. “I was choosing between Brown and Williams, and I chose Brown because there would be people here [fellow Deep Springers].” Brian and the other Deep Springs transfers at Brown refer to themselves laughingly as a cult.
Academic and social idealism intersect at Deep Springs. The students decide which professors come to the school each year and design the curriculum. The only two required courses are Composition and Public Speaking. Sciences are notoriously second best, due to the lack of laboratory resources on the campus. The desert setting tends to attract humanities professors, who can enjoy the desert without worrying about teaching supplies. The schools to which Deep Springers transfer, although less idyllic, offer similar academic freedoms with the added bonus of far more resources. Nate reflects, “It’s pretty ironic that I’m majoring in marine biology [at Brown].”
All five seem to agree that whatever drew them to the desert in the first place—a need for adventure, isolation, an escape from modern conventions—had been satisfied by the time they graduated. They also agree that those two years left a mark.
Sam explains, “[Brown] is not going to leave as profound a mark, because it’s an institution geared towards a four-year experience. Brown is a less difficult place to live.”
Steve Carmody, DS ‘08, will graduate from Deep Springs in May. A letter home details his first days as a Deep Springs student in the fall of 2008: “I am about to move an irrigation line in field two, which I have to do before dinner. Then […] we are going on a camping trip, hiking into the mountains and camping out for the night. This morning I awoke to loud music at four in the morning, as the second years ran up and down the halls shouting, «labor party!» and getting us all out of bed. We went to the boarding house for cereal and then all of us went to the garden around 4:30 and harvested a year’s worth of garlic. […] Last night we had a dance (sort of) and a campfire.”
Deep Springs alumnus L. Jackson Newell revists Nunn’s questions in “Maverick Colleges: Ten Notable Experiments in American Undergraduate Education”: “Why, Nunn asked, should colleges concentrate almost exclusively on intellectual development? What about character? Responsibility? Physical and spiritual growth?” By giving his students more than a traditional classroom experience, Nunn hoped to shape their characters. He believed that there is less to be gained from a strict focus on academics. Sam explains, “This [Brown] is just the place where I’m finishing up my education, not a part of myself.”
However, the Deep Springs exeperience is spiritually taxing as well. Laughing, Michael suggests that scarred, rather than marked, may best describe his current condition. “I’ve been listening to the Magnetic Fields—this song on 69 Love Songs called “I think I need a new heart.” I felt like that upon graduating from Deep Springs.” He adds with gravitas, “Brown hasn’t given me a new heart, but at least it’s helped me sew up the gaping wound.” With confidence, verging on indignation, he insists, “I feel like a Brown student.”
Romance of Place
For Sam, the desert lies at the core of the relationship between Deep Springs and its students. He explains, “There was no appeal to going back to the East Coast for school. Not to be cynical, but if I could have stayed out there I would have. I would have left Deep Springs certainly, but I wasn’t pining for the East Coast or home.” The desert affords so much excitement, so much rich material for storytelling, that parting with it is more emotionally devastating than the academic and social rigidity of the college.
Nunn had his own explanations as to why young men were attracted to the setting. In an oft-quoted address to the student body in 1923 he stated: “The desert has a deep personality; it has a voice… ‘Gentlemen, for what came ye into the wilderness?’ Not for conventional scholastic training; not for ranch life; not to become proficient in commercial or professional pursuits for personal gain. You came to prepare for a life of service, with the understanding that superior ability and generous purpose would be expected of you.” There’s a certain elitism in the valorization of labor, and it’s reflected in the attitude of Deep Springs students towards civilization outside the valley.
In his memoir, Kirby describes walking through Northwestern’s campus during a term break with another Deep Springs student. “In our blood-smeared Carhartt coveralls and muddy work boots, we imagined ourselves two sun-bronzed beacons of virility [...] it felt so good to believe that we were kings of a world that wasn’t ours.” When the young men leave the enclave of rusticity behind, they give up the labor tasks that served as a source of legitimacy. Kirby recalls,“We were confident [at Deep Springs], assured, cooler than we would ever be again.”
Grinning, Nate explains, “The really interesting thing about love at Deep Springs is that it is entirely one-sided and imaginary. But no less potent.” There is a certain romance to being marooned in the desert, to rising before the sun and tending alfalfa fields, to milking cows and baking bread. Sentimentality breeds.
All five compare graduation from Deep Springs to ending an intense romantic relationship. After two years in a microscopic community, larger settings offer an escape from scrutiny. Michael says of his classmates at Deep Springs, “You’re required to live with these people, but not necessarily to like them. I used to tell people that Deep Springs was a lot like having 25 brothers [...]. You don’t get to choose your brothers.”
What follows the break up with Deep Springs is like take two—the second marriage. There is a fundamental difference between the two relationships. On a superficial level, the Deep Springers fit right in at Brown; they seem to share the self-awareness of wardrobe and attitude characteristic of students here. However, they’ve come from a place where calluses are from butchering and harvesting, and T-shirts turn threadbare from labor and sun bleaching. To Brian, it’s simple: “The uniqueness of Deep Springs isn’t an affect. [In other places] it seems that people try to be unique.”
Newell quotes Nunn: “Students…acquire a sense of duty only if they [are] granted responsibility.” Nate admits how deeply this belief is instilled in him: “I miss…feeling I was responsible for all the space around me. Now I’m not even responsible for changing light bulbs. I went for a month and a half with no light bulb [in my room], because I didn’t want to have someone else do it.” Charles expresses similar indignation, “‘Well’, [I said to the custodian], ‘thanks for giving me the light bulb, I can do it myself.’ But he stood on a ladder and did it for me.”
In the end—how have we changed?
Deep Springs is an exercise in constructing and reconstructing utopia. Each group of students designs a curriculum and chooses the class of Deep Springers that will succeed it.
The natural beauty of the desert valley is so breathtaking that it is hard to live there without being emotionally stimulated. Sam admits, “It was easy to make an experience meaningful there.” After two years of intense study, manual labor, and separation from modern distractions, other schools and jobs can start to seem grey. He explains, “Since I left, I’ve been […] trying not to be a misanthrope. It was a really beautiful place.”
Maybe Deep Springs cannot ultimately be compared to its postludes; it is too tiny and self-selecting, and too removed from the Ivy-induced scramble for a brand-name education. However, that doesn’t mean that special insight, maybe even enlightenment, hasn’t been afforded to the young men who get two years at each institution. Michael believes that “we have evolved—both in our relationships with the institutions and in our relationships with living, breathing people. Not that the second marriage is kinder, or more gentle, than the first, but we’re doing better now. We’re more patient.” Brian adds, with a grin, “We’ve been hurt before.”