At Deep Springs, College Life Means Chores and Studies, and the Only Animal House Is the Barn

updated 01/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

There is no other college campus in the country like it. You will find no TVs, Walkmans or ghetto blasters here, just a stack of beat-up Simon and Garfunkel LPs next to the record player in the kitchen. There are no designer styles of the moment or even punkish preppies, just people in sweatshirts and jeans covered with muck from the fields or dairy stalls. There are no frats, no booze—and no girls. Conversation doesn't center on what David Byrne and Madonna are wearing; it deals rather with the subtler matter of how political symbols affect society, and with the emotional demands of slaughtering your first cow. In place of jaunts to town for pizza and beer, there is chess in the parlor or a critique of student speeches on the veranda. True, the nearest city is 40 miles away, but in any case the undergrads have banned themselves from leaving campus.

We're at Deep Springs College, the most unusual institution of higher learning in America. Located in a desert valley in the Inyo-White Mountains, 275 miles north of Los Angeles, Deep Springs's entire student body consists of 24 collegians committed to hard work in an intensive intellectual atmosphere. Nondenominational Deep Springs is supported entirely by donations and an estimated $2 million trust fund, which provides each student with a $14,000-per-year scholarship covering tuition, room and board. Its bright college years number only two; after that, Deep Springs alums finish up at such places as Harvard, Yale, Cornell and Princeton. For many of them, junior and senior years are anticlimactic.

Deep Springs's academic credentials are as fancy as the campus life is simple. The applicants' average SAT scores are over 1400, the same as at Harvard. The college accepts only 15 out of 50 of those, and its dropout rate is a mere one a year. In addition to its intellectual demands, the little college insists that all students take part in every phase of communal life. They work on the college's 2,500-acre ranch, where they raise 300 head of cattle and tend a small dairy herd. They wash dishes, study a wide range of subjects they've had a say in choosing, help decide which students will be admitted and even take part in hiring the six long-term faculty members.

The day begins at 5 a.m. with the care and feeding of the animals. There's a hearty breakfast at 7:30, then it's on to whatever classes students are interested in: calculus, 19th-century fiction, modern literature. The only required courses are composition and public speaking. At 12:30, lunch (homemade soup and bread, meat from the college livestock), then irrigation and bucking hay bales or, for those not assigned to work, optional classes. After supper (6 p.m.)they hold meetings, play volleyball, study or maybe knit an afghan (crafts are big here). "Deep Springs gives students a vivid sense of how the responsible performance of their jobs affects the community in which they live," says President Brandt Kehoe, 52, an alumnus. What brought Kehoe to Deep Springs in 1951 is what brings students today: "It was more unusual than any other place."

The college was created in 1917 by Lucien Lucius Nunn, a pioneer in the electric power industry in the West, who believed that enlightenment could best be found in seclusion. "The desert has a deep personality; it has a voice," Nunn wrote. "Great leaders in all ages, from Moses to Roosevelt, have sought the desert and heard its voice." Most of Deep Springs's approximately 700 grads, including the late CBS news correspondent Charles Collingwood, claim to have gotten the message—and its current class surely is gung ho. "I'd been a pampered suburbanite," says first-year student David Whiting, 18, of Fullerton, Calif. "I'd always been too lazy to use all of my academic ability. In high school it was fashionable to not do well. Here that force of peer pressure pushes in the opposite direction."

The college's small size is one of its greatest attractions, to students and faculty alike. The average size class is three or four. "At the University of Michigan, I taught classes with 225 students," says Sarah Conly, 33, a visiting philosophy teacher. "Here the students care and the teachers care."

But if Deep Springs is an academic Eden, there's a spot of trouble in paradise: the absence of Eves. Students have been asking the board of trustees to change the all-male policy. "We need women here as an intellectual education and an emotional one," says Neal Latt, 18, of Sherman Oaks, Calif. A proposal to go coed came up for a vote in 1979, was tabled for five years, came up again last year and is under consideration again. "I'd like to see it coed," says President Kehoe, who lives on campus with his wife, Sandra, 52, a ceramics and drawing teacher. "But I understand the reluctance of some alumni. There's concern that the intensity of involvement, of responsibility to the community, would be weakened." To a man, the students disagree. Argues Dan Fulwiler, 19, of Milwaukee, "Women have a different perspective on society and education. We could only be enriched by that."

In one sense, the agitation is further proof of the students' involvement with their community. They have a voice in almost all decisions, and one under-grad even sits with eight alumni on the board of trustees. "This is a place where people learn to deal with real, everyday life problems," says David Arndt, 20, of Washington, D.C. "Other campuses seem like fantasy worlds—students had no responsibility. Here, it's your school, your responsibility, so there's no need to demonstrate. Who are we going to demonstrate to? We run the college."

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