What is Deep Springs?
Founded in 1917, Deep Springs College is a unique institution of higher learning. The educational program is built upon three pillars: academics, student self-government, and manual labor. The school is located forty miles from Bishop, California on an isolated cattle ranch in Deep Springs Valley.
Between twelve and fifteen students are admitted each year. Each receives a full scholarship; the college covers the costs of tuition, room, and board for every student offered admission. In exchange, Deep Springs students are expected to dedicate themselves to lives of service to humanity. Alumni have gone on to exemplify this ideal in a variety of fields, including politics, science, journalism, academics, agriculture, medicine, law, business, and design.
The three pillars, which comprise students’ formal responsibilities in their two years at the college, prompt each student to take real responsibility for and ownership of the community. Students are expected to bring a high level of preparation and engagement to their classes, which are generally constructed around seminar-style discussion and often have fewer than eight participants. The Student Body is responsible for many aspects of running the College, admitting students, hiring faculty, and reviewing student and faculty performance. Each student also labors roughly twenty hours each week. Labor positions include working on the farm and ranch, as well as daily tasks of cooking, cleaning, and maintaining facilities and vehicles.
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For an authoritative history of the College and to appreciate our enduring value in progressive education, consider L. Jackson Newell’s The Electric Edge of Academe: The Saga of Lucien L. Nunn and Deep Springs College.
Like the rest of life at Deep Springs, academics is a study in responsibility and cooperation, as well as the course material. Classes are small—the average is eight students. With such small classes, thorough preparation and class participation are essential and expected.
There are no majors. Most students take two to three classes per semester, choosing from offerings in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and the arts. Many classes are discussion-based. A sample of recent course offerings include Conservation Science, Aristotle’s Ethics, Painting, Mathematics in Political Life, The Modern Essay, Race and Education, Magical Realism, War and Peace in the Congo, and The Poetry of Emily Dickinson.
The distinctive quality of the Deep Springs academic program is that it treats students not as consumers but as creators of their education and as stewards of a joint intellectual project. The Curriculum Committee (staffed and chaired by students) selects the college’s professors, and the Student Body determines each semester’s curriculum by choosing courses from a variety of proposals submitted by each professor. As mentioned above, classes rely heavily on student participation; thorough preparation and robust engagement is seen as a student’s responsibility to the entire class. Students not only drive most class conversations but are also responsible for thinking critically on how each course can improve, attempting to improve their own participation, giving feedback to other students and the professor, and often helping decide questions of class structure.
After completing Deep Springs’ two-year program, most students transfer to four-year institutions to finish their BA or BS. Students receive support and guidance throughout the transfer process. Many students go on to world-class universities including Yale, Stanford, Brown, and Chicago.
Click here for more information on the Academic Pillar.
In addition to their academic and self-governance responsibilities, each student at Deep Springs works approximately twenty hours a week. Students do everything from milking our two dairy cows, to irrigating our 155-acre alfalfa farm, to cooking meals and cleaning the community’s dishes three times a day. Most students switch labor positions every two months, though some positions require a four month commitment.
While students learn how to be useful on a farm, most do not go on to work in agriculture. Deep Springs is a fully operational cattle ranch and alfalfa farm – we sell our hay and our beef – but the labor pillar is valued most for its pedagogical function. Work is not conducted in exchange for the scholarship. Rather, the labor program allows students to contemplate their role in a community, to practice working hard, and to foster a sense of ownership and responsibility.
“There’s an obvious necessity to the work we do here. Cows need to be fed. The garbage needs to be taken out. Eggs need to be rinsed so that they can be used for breakfast. You need to take your responsibilities seriously because there are immediate and urgent consequences if you don’t do your job well. The vast majority of my personal growth has come from a series of mistakes. You mess up, you figure out how to proceed, and you ultimately learn how to do a better job . The labor pillar gives you room to fail, and that’s crucial.” – Michael Leger, DS16 New Brunswick, Canada
Click here for more information on the labor pillar.
Students at Deep Springs participate in running the college itself in ways that are not possible at larger institutions. The Student Body exists as a discrete, self-governing entity within the College, tasked with governing itself and working with the staff and faculty in the day-to-day operation of the college.
The Student Body convenes at least once a week to deliberate and take action on issues concerning community life, labor, academic planning, disciplinary matters, election of student office holders, and more. Students are elected to positions of leadership within the Student Body and the larger community. Elected positions include Student Body President; Labor Commissioner, who assigns students labor positions and is in charge of making sure the labor program runs smoothly; and Student Trustee, one of two students who sits on the Board of Trustees of the College as full voting members.
Additionally, students serve on one of four standing committees. The Applications Committee handles student admissions. The Curriculum Committee handles faculty hiring, sets academic policy, reviews cases of academic misconduct, guides course selection and makes recommendations for faculty retention. The Review and Re-invitations Committee reviews individual student progress throughout the year, facilitates a biannual process of written or verbal feedback between all students, and leads the re-invitation process by which students are or aren’t re-invited for a second year. The Communications Committee manages relations with the outside world, deliberating on press requests, publishing the biannual alumni newsletter and maintaining this website! Each committee is chaired by a student and meets weekly throughout the year.
Since Deep Springs is only a two-year program, students do not often see the full outcomes of their decisions. But just as they are the recipients of decisions made by students before them, so they, in turn, are obligated to try to make the best choices possible for students who follow. This chain of responsibility, from one generation of students to the next, continually reinforces and reinvigorates the gravity students at Deep Springs take in governing their college.