Deep Springs and Vanity Fair

There have been a number of references to Deep Springs in this blog, though I can’t recall if we’ve given enough of an explanation of my alma mater to illuminate those who haven’t heard the whole story before. Avid comment readers will be able to identify other DS alums, Jacob and Loren.

The June issue of Vanity Fair has a multi-page story about the place, which I read courtesy of our friend Corinne, who kindly sacrificed the pages in her copy, and mailed them to me. It makes for good reading. I’ll post my thoughts here, and invite my fellow alums, and others with opinions, to comment.

First, the background. Every few years, some enterprising journalist hears about the college in some way, and figures it will make a great story. How could it not: two dozen young men with the SAT scores to get into any college they want, somehow end up out in the middle of nowhere, in the desert, working on a cattle ranch, while simultaneously taking classes on everything from Locke and Bentham to the sessile benthonic organisms of the Cambrian Era. Oh, and staying up late at night debating about what the rules for their own conduct should be, who should be admitted for the next year, and what teachers to hire. Fabulous story. And each time it gets written, the journalist, who comes in to this odd place with his or her own preconceptions and biases, comes away with a slightly different approach on it. It’s like a Rorschach test. Usually, I find these stories feel pretty far from the one I lived. It doesn’t help that it’s a moving target; it’s a two-year program, so the entire student body changes quickly, and that matters in a community so small that one individual makes a big difference.

That said, I liked this article. First, the photography was excellent, both as photographs and as visual communication of the feel of the place. But the prose, written by a woman who had the benefit of marrying an alum, was also good. It’s probably the best article I’ve read at allowing someone to understand the place.

How did the author, Evgenia Peretz, do it? Well, for one thing, it’s longer than most articles I’ve seen. That gives her time for quite a few telling anecdotes as well as the obligatory explications. (It is true that some of her facts are wrong, but not in a terribly annoying “WMD” kind of way.) For a place as odd and complex as Deep Springs, the extra space matters.

Second, she starts, and continues, with vignettes of the brilliant oddballs who populate the student body. She transcribes some of the heated rhetoric and pretentious outgassing that passes for conversation there. It’s charming to read about students 25 years after my arrival who indulge in the same wacky experiments in behavior, hygeine, politics and philosophy that I saw then. I imagine that her “native guide” husband was of some assistance here.

But she does go beyond the quirky characters to identify a few elements of the experience that ring true to me, and seem telling. One is the idea of “dealing when you haven’t got a clue.” I’ve never heard it expressed just that way, but that forced self-reliance and learning to do what you can while you figure out what you should be doing, was a key part of my time on the ranch. I never had to deal with a flooded dairy barn in the middle of the night with no instructions, but there were other, similar experiences.

Another thing she gets right, mostly, is the experience of feeling that your role is important to the well-being of the community. I won’t repeat the quote from one of the students, but it did recall that sense of having to work with and worse, depend on, guys you hated. I long for a greater sense of this in Washington, often.

She also touches briefly on the possibility that Deep Springs leaves you “out of step” with the society you return to. I won’t say it leaves you ill-prepared, but rather, better acquainted with notions of reliance and responsibility than your peers “outside.” I still recall feeling out-of-place at Brown, where people complained of, and failed to do, reading assignments I thought relatively light, and where even the supposed political sophisticates acted like whiny children.

I was also impressed by the fact that it wasn’t all about the students. She did mention several of the adults who’ve been critical, like the ranch manager, the president, and several of the Trustees. The discussion at the end about the dicey financial history, and the changes in the last 10 years was a good idea. I thought it gave a meaningful view into “what happens to these guys when they grow up”, beyond the usual list of ambassadors, spies, scholars, writers, and congressmen.

This is probably long enough, and has thoroughly bored anyone who hasn’t read the article, so I’ll wind up. Look for a copy of the June 2004 edition if you’d like to read the article and see what I’m blathering about. Jake, Loren and anyone else who has anything to say, comments are invited.