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SCHOOL on the RANGE : Milking Cows, Hiring Faculty, Debating De Tocqueville--a Day's Work at the Strangest Little College in America

May 14, 1989|THOMAS J. MEYER | Thomas J. Meyer is a Los Angeles writer.

THERE IS NO EASY way to get to Deep Springs Valley. From any direction, the terrain is the same: bustling interstates turning into smaller roads that narrow as they creep upward through the high desert of eastern California. Finally, a thin, serpentine road crawls through a craggy mountain pass, then dips into an expanse of desolate flatland.

The valley lies silent, nearly empty. A saltwater lake marks one end. A two-lane highway runs down the center. But in one corner, a stand of cottonwood trees conceals a well-kept secret: Deep Springs College, perhaps the finest small college in America--and probably the strangest.

Cut off from civilization by a series of mountain ranges, Deep Springs is similarly separated from the academic world. Its tiny, all-male enrollment comes from the top of the college applicant pool; the 21 students all scored in the highest 2% on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

They pay no tuition, room or board and share one of the nation's largest campuses, 2,500 acres of sprawling desert. In exchange for the free ride, students are required to work on the college's ranch, doing everything from tending the 280 head of cattle to farming alfalfa.

John (Buzz) Anderson, president of the college, explains his school's attraction by gesturing as if he's performing rigorous manual labor. "The students we get are those interested in growing this way as well as"--he points to his head--"this way."

Deep Springs students also may not leave the valley without permission but otherwise have almost total control over their lives there. They help admit new students, hire professors and set the curriculum.

"This isn't just going to college and getting smart and going home and getting on with your life," says Scott Edelson, a first-year student from Edina, Minn. "For two years, this is life."

IT IS BEFORE DAWN. Under a clear, starlit sky, a blues tune crackles from speakers in a dairy barn. First-year student Hugh Seid stumbles through a muddy field, trying to wake a cow named Malice. "Come on, girl," the 19-year-old says, landing a kick on the side of the Brown Swiss. "You know the game."

A moment later, Seid struggles to lead Malice and three other cows through the darkness to the barn. "At some point, they tell me, they start to respond to your voice," he says. "That hasn't happened yet."

Deep Springs' labor program--combined with its demanding academic plan and the peculiarities that naturally arise at an institution in the middle of nowhere--makes the all-male college different from any other. Throughout the day, students can be found driving tractors or feed trucks along campus roads. Occasionally, one hurries from class to rope calves.

Like many of his classmates, Seid first heard of Deep Springs from the annual nationwide mailing the college sends to students with the top scores on the SAT. A San Diego resident, he had been considering attending UC Berkeley, UCLA or Yale but had little enthusiasm for college until he learned about Deep Springs and its work requirements.

"I read the brochure and sort of instinctively knew I was going to come here," he says.

In many ways, Seid is the typical Deep Springs student: He was far brighter than average in high school, he sought something out of the ordinary from college and he had little exposure to manual labor.

So far, he has worked four to seven hours a day in a variety of positions--as campus office assistant; as driver, traveling out of the valley on college errands; as general laborer, performing maintenance jobs and ranch tasks, and as "boardinghouse" person, washing dishes and cleaning the dining hall kitchen. This is Seid's second week as dairy boy, and he's learning the ropes with the help of his predecessor. He's still getting used to the hours--waking before 5 a.m. every day--and the duties--milking the cows twice a day.

Since life at Deep Springs revolves around the ranch, the school operates year-round, with six seven-week terms separated by one-week breaks (and more for Christmas). To accommodate the outdoor labor, the college stays permanently on daylight-saving time. Classes are scheduled around students' work assignments. During breaks, a handful of students stay to look after the ranch.

What the students say they gain from their labor assignments is a feel for working with their hands and a sense of being a vital part of their community.

Edelson, 20, describes Deep Springs as a hands-on lesson in collective effort--the kind of experience that is idealized and intellectualized elsewhere.

"You learn here that community is not some touchy-feely liberal idea," he says. "There's a certain sense of responsibility. It's about doing your job."

DEEP SPRINGS COLLEGE was founded in 1917 bL. Nunn--a lawyer, inventor and educational innovator--as an experiment in higher educa tion.

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