This was a talk delivered to a small group of people gathered together to think about how to revamp the traditional model of higher education and eat pie. In particular it was intended for those involved in thinking through how to implement the Saxifrage project. I would not have written it quite as I did, had I conceived of it for a broader audience, or thought that it would end up on the Internet. Despite this, I agreed to let it be posted because I thought the larger Saxifrage community might benefit from a glimpse into at least one person’s take on the attempt to re-think the liberal arts model at Deep Springs.
If you’re here its probably because you know me, you are interested in learning a bit more about Deep Springs College, want to eat really good pie, or some combination of these. I will get to Deep Springs and its innovative pedagogical model, but first, since this is a Saxifrage event, I would like to spend a little bit of time answering the questions “To what end do we attend College and, therefore, where does its value lie?” These answers will be some mixture of my own, and those of the founder of Deep Springs, L.L. Nunn.
Since there might be people who don’t know anything about Deep Springs, let me begin by introducing it a bit. It is a two-year institution in the high mountain dessert on the California border with Nevada. It is a working cattle ranch and alfalfa farm. Its student body is limited to twenty-six members and until next year it will have been all male. It is free to attend. The students are the beneficial owners of the college, which means that although there is oversight from the administration and trusties, the students own the land and the facilities during their tenure at the college. Accordingly, the student body’s governance of itself is seen as a crucial element of the education, central to Nunn’s original vision.
Let me start off with a quote from a letter by Nunn to the students of Deep Springs, dated June 1st, 1922, regarding the purpose of the institution:
“You ask me what we are doing at Deep Springs. Burke in the last sentence of his French Revolution refers to himself as one, who “when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reason to that which may preserve its equipoise.” Deep Springs believes and teaches that since Lord Bacon’s time the Anglo Saxon people have been overloading their Ship of State on the side of Science, resulting in the growth of materialism and commercialism and obscuring the ideals which flow from religion, philosophy and ethics. It teaches and believes that science has been made the ignominious slave of commercialism and that commercialism has found most profit in amusing and stupefying the people with every material device and sensual pleasure; that our educational instructions too often prepare their most brilliant students to be the ill-paid hirelings of the avaricious, or, what is worse, participators in the results of an evil system. Deep Springs does not disregard mathematics or the general sciences, or even commercialism or the spread of the use of creature comforts, but, recognizing the overloading of the ship on one side, aims to place the small weight of its influence where it will tend to develop men of fixed purpose and character, who will dedicate themselves to the higher cause of service.”
Here, almost a hundred years ago, Nunn presciently articulates a concern about the forces of commercialism and the value of profit making corrupting the core of our culture, and obscuring the traditional values flowing from the study of religion, philosophy and ethics. Furthermore, he has focused in on our institutions of higher education as the domain in which this battle over what we value as a culture will be fought, and he has identified that the economic value of the products of scientific inquiry have too often brought it and its practitioners into the mercenary service of those whose primary aim is to secure their own wealth.
In the past decade there has been an enormous push towards the commercialization of higher education. Indeed, it is understandable that the big business model of higher education has gained an enormous amount of ground as the price of higher education has skyrocketed, and students can’t justify the extravagance unless they see tangible economic rewards. This is exacerbated by the recent decrease in public funding, since insofar as budget shortfalls have been made up, it is through the individual donorship of wealthy donors, who have made their money through the principles governing good business practice. It is only natural, after all, then, that these donors, once elected to trusteeships, want to bring the same management techniques to the university that have made them wealthy. As has been made clear, however, in the recent debacle at the University of Virginia they often have not given the requisite thought to the differences between a business and an institution of higher education, both in regard to how it should be run and in regard to what its purpose should be.
We live in a society of plenty. In the western world we have achieved a collective means where no one should need to struggle to feed, clothe or house herself. Nonetheless, as a culture we still strive after wealth as though we lived in a time of scarcity. Relatedly, it is often repeated that the Humanities cannot compete economically with the sciences, with their tangible goods produced. This may be so, but it isn’t the root of the problem. I think that lies deeper, in the thought that the measure of value is always monetary, is always a matter of products produced. I think that there is value in this struggle for more, but I think it is inappropriate and outmoded for such pleonexia, such striving for more and more, to stand at the center of our collective value system.
The value of striving for ever more output is of course a huge topic, and I don’t want to really address it here. I raise it only to preliminarily bring into focus the value of the humanities as opposed to the sciences. The value of the humanities lies not in its products but in its questions, in the continual reassessment of what we should value that it spurs. In the humanities we encounter contrasting pictures of human life, with many different views of what counts as flourishing for us. When we study the humanities, be it philosophy, theology, literature, or other art forms, we come up against different systems of values and are thus faced with the question of what we ourselves should value.
So far this sketch of the value of the humanities is vague and broad. Let me try to bring it into focus and tie it back into the purpose and aims of a liberal arts education by talking a bit about a book that Tim reviewed in his pie and pedagogy talk two weeks ago. The new book was called “College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be”. It outlined the development of colleges from small seminaries, through institutions directed towards the ideal of a liberal arts education, into the enormous research universities that we have today. The aim of the book is to recapture the meaning of ‘liberal’, in a ‘liberal arts education’, and to quietly impress on the reader the value of such an education. ‘Liberality’ in this sense means, that which is suited to the education of a free person. It is, I think, this value of liberality that is what is promoted when we study the humanities and coincidentally it was also, I think, the core value that Nunn set out to promote in the founding of his educational projects.
In order to understand what “is suited to the education of a free person,” we need to first know what freedom amounts to. At the core of Nunn’s conception of freedom is self-governance, for he views freedom and self-government in obedience to law as one and the same. He recognizes that on the face of it this doesn’t make sense. How can obedience be synonymous with freedom?
To understand this it will help to contrast the fee person with the slave. The free person lives in free society with others. Free societies can be small and large, ranging from, for example, the small association of students at Deep Springs, to the state government of Pennsylvania or the government of the United States of America. When people live in society with one another they choose to establish laws governing the conduct of their members, for the maintenance and flourishing of the society as a whole, and they curtail their own rights, for the benefit of the common good.
Slavery, like freedom, requires society. Unlike freedom, which is participation in society, however, slavery is subjugation to it. The slave does not choose to enter into society with others, but is coerced into obeying orders out of fear. Both the slave and the free person recognize and respect the law, but they do so in extremely different ways. The free person wills the law, takes responsibility for it, and has her part in determining it. The slave submits to it and is bound by it in servitude.
At the individual level, Nunn thinks that we find a situation analogous to that of the free person and the slave at the social level. He thinks there are laws governing our right conduct, laws of morality that we can all be aware of through our good common sense. We can rebel against these and instead follow our personal inclinations, desiring our own pleasure and our own gain, at the expense of others. Such intemperance, according to Nunn is the mark of poor self-governance. When we follow our good judgment, will our action in accord with it, and take responsibility for this action, however, then he thinks we govern ourselves well individually.
Now in a free society, the authority of the body politic derives from each individual’s choice to enter into that society. Accordingly, the authority of the society is in part vested in it from each of its members, and in respecting its authority the members are indirectly respecting their own authority over themselves. In this way, when a free person respects the laws of their free society, they are engaged in a further form of self-government.
Entering into society with others involves a curtailment of one’s rights for the sake of the communal good. At times one will be in the dissenting minority, even when one has followed one’s best moral sense. This is the moment when our free power to enter into society is put to the test. According to Nunn, it is in this moment, when we choose to follow the legitimate dictates of the social body, although they go against our better judgment, that our freedom to form civil societies reaches its highest degree.
That said, of course, Nunn does not think that the prevue of collective legislation can penetrate into every affair. On the contrary, a society only has the right to govern the conduct of its members insofar as that conduct impinges on the collective good, and to the greatest extent possible, the dominion of the individual is to be preserved.
With this roughly hewn Nunnian conception of freedom via self-governance in mind, now we are in a position to be able to ask: what is a liberal arts education in the sense of “that which is suited to the education of a free person”? Deep Springs was the culmination of Nunn’s answer to this question. So perhaps now I’ll say a bit about the various aspects of a Deep Springs education, before returning to examine the question again more generally, as well as the value of the Humanities within this education.
There are three main pillars to a Deep Springs education: Academics, Labor, and Self-Governance of the student body.
There are usually three long-term faculty at Deep Springs: one in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. In addition to these, there are two or three short-term faculty that fill gaps in the curriculum. There are usually around ten courses in any given semester. The only required courses are the summer seminar one’s first term, which is usually a sweeping survey of classics in western political thought and literature; a composition course one’s first full academic semester, which is meant to ensure that all students attain a certain high degree of proficiency in writing; and finally public speaking every semester, which takes place weekly, and in which all students deliver one or two speeches over the course of a term.
As I mentioned, Deep Springs is a working Cattle Ranch and Alfalfa farm. While in attendance students spend roughly half their time working on the ranch. The amount of time spent on ranch work can vary drastically from job to job and term to term. If something needs to get done on the ranch it is the first priority, often because the consequences of failing to do it are immediate and drastic. The kind of jobs include moving cattle, feeding animals, tending the hey operation, working in the office, cooking for the community, cleaning dishes in the boarding house, milking the dairy cows, assisting the mechanic, and butchering, as well as general labor positions responsible for doing whatever special labor projects need to get done at a given time. The labor commissioner oversees this general labor crew. This student is elected to the position and is responsible for making the labor assignments at the beginning of every term.
The final pillar of the program is self-governance. I mentioned that according to the Deed of Trust establishing the college, the members of the current student body are the beneficial owners of the college, its land and its facilities. Their powers in regards to the college, however, are thankfully substantially curtailed by the powers of the board of trusties, president, and other administrative positions. Nonetheless, students retain the power to govern the conduct of their fellows, “in accordance with its traditions and the ideals and policies of Deep Springs” (Deed of Trust). The student body meets weekly, usually on Friday evenings, where it discusses, approves or denies motions brought forth by its members. Each year it reassesses the standing bi-laws of the body, and the two ground rules instated by Nunn: the prohibition of drugs and alcohol and the isolation policy. In addition to these regular student body meetings there are sub-committees, run by and primarily consisting in students, that make recommendations to the student body and president as to who should be admitted to the college for the following year, which faculty should be hired or whether their contracts should be renewed, and whether or not first year students should be re-invited for the next year.
In all of these activities, however, Nunn stresses that students should not be as concerned with performing their duties as they are proscribed in letter, as they should be with engaging in these activities in the right spirit. Of course, the chickens need to be fed, the dairy cows need to be milked, and the alfalfa needs to be watered. But inevitably students make mistakes and break things, and naturally everything would run much more efficiently if everyone had performed their duties day in and day out for years. Avoiding these pitfalls and running a successful ranch is not, however, the point. This is, as Nunn conceives it, to cultivate the character of those engaged in the project. This cultivation, however, is also not the spirit with which everyone works. Such a self-serving enterprise would be self-defeating: it would not instill its virtue. That is, it would not awaken students to their common moral sense, and would not teach them the virtue of good self-governance.
Accordingly, it was a different spirit that animated all aspects of the work at Deep Springs, at least in my experience. This spirit, in the ideal, was that of giving everything you had in you to any individual task, for the sake of the community and its well functioning. This wasn’t, however, a matter of just trying to do everything as well as possible. This perfectionism was driven by something deeper than the satisfaction of a job well done or even the knowledge that the community as a whole would benefit. What drove the work, what performing our daily tasks in the right spirit amounted to, was doing them out of love. This love was a love for one another as people, as brethren, as well as a love for Deep Springs as an institution, for its project and for its future.
The notion of love that I have in mind is a sort of selfless one that can have a general object. It can be directed towards people with whom one does not have a personal or familial bond, merely in virtue of their humanity. Fitting it into one of the traditional categories, it seems closest to philia or fraternité, the kind of love appropriate to civic bonds. While there is something to this, living at Deep Springs, striving to serve one another, it became evident that under philia, animating it from within, is a spark of something more self-giving. This spark is agapic love. I suspect, however, that this form of love will seem antiquated to most, and insofar as anyone thinks about it at all these days, I suspect it is in relation to the mandate to love one’s neighbor. I think it is a shame that this kind of love is often only recognized in religious contexts. I don’t think the love that ideally animates those working at Deep Springs, or in civil society in general, must be particularly religious in orientation, although I do think that agapic love is at its core.
Throughout his writings, Nunn often talks about the ideal of service. He recognizes that there is a danger of pursuing this ideal in the wrong way. He says, “There is a great danger of hypocrisy in the pretense so often indulged in of helping, but there is plenty of opportunity to help so modestly that “the left hand knoweth not what the right hand doeth.”” I myself am uncomfortable with holding the ideal of service too far aloft for this reason and for the arrogance that seems to me so often endemic to it. Nonetheless, I think when it is viewed the right way, this ideal can capture well the spirit which Nunn hoped would animate the work at Deep Springs and which did animate it, at least some of the time, while I was there. For I think the kind of action, animated through love, that one ideally undertakes at Deep Springs is what Nunn had in mind with his notion of service.
Acting in service to one another, although it was the spirit in which Nunn hoped we would live, by no means exhausted his educational vision. Another of Nunn’s guiding principles is summed up well in his remark: “It is impossible to believe long contrary to conduct. We believe as we act.” In acting in service to one another he thought that we would come to recognize what genuine service was, that this kind of activity was ours and mankind’s highest vocation and that the good life, a virtuous life, was a life of service.
Two weeks ago Tim read a passage from College quoting from Emerson, “The whole secret of the teacher’s force lies in the conviction that men are convertible. And they are. They want awakening.” Teachers have always been—and, let us hope, always will be—in the business of trying to “get the soul out of bed, out of her deep habitual sleep” (College, 45). I think the purpose of Deep Springs, through its three pillars of academics, labor and self-government, animated by a love of one another and an ideal of service to one another, can also be summed up as a kind of conversion. Not conversion in an essentially religious sense, but conversion to a way of life, a forging of good character, the recognition of one’s self as a free person.
According to the author of College conversion is the single most important aspiration of someone engaged in undergraduate teaching. That instant where students get it: they see that their lives will be better if they are critically engaged in thinking about how best to live them in an intellectually rigorous conversation with those who have thought hard about how to live their lives before them. On the traditional liberal arts model this can happen on a number of levels. In part it happens on a small scale: when in a class a student sees how the ideas being discussed that day fit together and feels the thrill of understanding just a little bit better how some very small portion of the world works. It happens on a larger scale, over the course of a student’s education where, after they have felt that excitement a number of times, they come to crave it. It also happens in the life of the college community, when talking to one another, members of this community come to realize that although convictions are held individually, talking them over happens together, and that this too is a critical aspect of evaluating them. In the process, members of this community come to value the community itself, for how it contributes to furthering the dual goals of understanding and of critiquing what one thinks one understands.
Deep Springs builds on this traditional model. Nunn’s intent was not to cultivate academics but free agents of social change directing the nation towards the good. Accordingly, to merely develop an intellectual community was not enough. His ideal of the free man was not only someone who knew what was worth doing, but also someone who knew when action needed to be taken, when restraint was required, and how to live in a free society with others. Because it did not educate its students for this, the traditional model of a liberal arts education was incomplete and needed the supplementation of labor and collective self-governance.
In laboring we subjugate ourselves to matter: we conform to its necessities, attend to its needs and obey its command. In labor we discipline ourselves to the demands of our matter; we come to respect its laws so that we can put it to use for our ends. As Nunn, who made his fortune building power plants, puts it, “If he wishes to utilize the natural forces of light and electricity he proceeds first to learn the laws by which they operate and then conforms to them. He does not, in the name of freedom, undertake to control the forces of nature by an autocratic command.” Beyond this practical lesson, however, Nunn thought there was a beauty to be found in our subjugation to and respect for matter in laboring. It is in labor that, when we undertake it in the right spirit, we take our proper place in the order of things, and where we become mechanisms for bringing about the good. Learning to love this work and appreciate its beauty, Nunn thought, was essential to being properly free, and to governing a land whose people mostly labor.
In governing one another, the students of Deep Springs enter into a kind of civil society. Over the course of Deep Springs’s development, power over its affairs was to be granted to students as they exhibited a sense of responsibility adequate to ensure its good exercise. This kind of gradual enfranchisement, like work, is a matter of submitting to the rules of a system for the sake of attaining the good of the community. Unlike with bare matter, however, these laws are subject to revision. They do not merely demand respect, but transformation as the need arises. Here too, however, this practical lesson was only part of the perceived value of the task. In binding themselves together into a society that governs its members and is devoted not only to their collective good, but also to the good of its future members, students are allowed the opportunity to enter into society together and thereby learn how to govern themselves in a free society. Now we are in a position to see why it is here that the education of a free person attains its chief perfection. If one enters into a free society in a spirit of service, in accord with good moral sense, loving one’s fellow members and loving the appropriate purpose for which the society was convened, then in serving this society and furthering its purposes, one will become even more finely attuned to one’s moral sense and will come to value the purposes of this society even more.
In Deep Springs, then, we get a different conception of the liberal arts education, which nonetheless fits the traditional one. It is an education that goes beyond instilling the value of intellectual questioning, aiming further at instilling the values of attending, creating, and serving in self-governing. Accordingly, it is one where the value of studying the humanities is situated within a larger context. This context is one where the value of the humanities lies not just in one’s personal development, but also in the development and cultivation of civil society, and thus humanity, as a whole. The character of students is transformed not only intellectually, but also in activity. They develop both their conception of what is valuable and their capacities for realizing those values. This transformation is concrete. It is a matter of learning how to do things both in productive labor and in productive free society, but more deeply it is a matter of becoming accustomed to doing these things for the right reasons, out of love and service to one’s fellow human beings.
So far I have described the particular development of the ideal of the liberal arts education at Deep Springs within the context of life there. If this was where its value stopped, however, then it would lack purpose. An associate of Nunn’s summed up this aspect of his conception of liberty well after his death: “The truth is, liberty is not a condition, but a career. Even its helpless opposite, slavery, is a career—the weary career of obedience to orders. Liberty is the career of the freeman. Its essence is responsibility and self-direction. But he shares the authority, and as servility is what we expect from the slave, so “liberality”—of mind and bearing—is what we have a right to count on from the freeman.”
This liberality of mind and bearing, whose essence is responsibility and self-direction, which is fueled by a love of one’s fellow man, and which is not merely a condition, but a career and vocation is what the liberal arts education, properly understood, strives to instill in students. At Deep Springs this is done through the cultivation of an intentional community, for its philosophy maintains that belief follows action, and that the easiest road to conversion of character is through activity, bolstered by the communication of ideas.
Let me close then with a final quote from Nunn’s associate: “I call you to liberty. I have tried to show you what it means. It is the noblest birthright of an American. Do not lose it. It is not an indulgence. It is a life. Live it.”
This was written quickly. In preparing it for a wider audience I have left it largely unaltered. Reading through it now, its conceptual flaws are glaring, but if I attempted to revise it into some suitable form I fear it would both grow substantially in size and never reach a state of completion. In preparing it I aimed to recapture and communicate the core of Nunn’s vision of the college and its purpose, although in doing so I have not hesitated to interpret this vision as seemed appropriate to my experience. This was my aim because of its audience: a group reflecting on how they should think of their own educational project and its purpose, prior to facing the realities of its implementation. My hope is that this account of Nunn’s vision and purpose for Deep Springs (which is in some ways very similar to how I envision Saxifrage but in other ways extremely different) will help throw our conception of the purpose and vision for Saxifrage into relief.
To be clear, this account is only of the founder’s vision, and has been formulated over a decade after my days as a student at Deep Springs. Accordingly, it is doubly removed from actual life there. Its intent is only to present a picture of the ideal that the College strove after, a purification of its own internal mythology perhaps, and not to provide any account of what life there was actually like. That isn’t to say that the picture I’ve painted has nothing to do with how real life was there, but real life is always more mundane than myth. Like any other human institution, Deep Springs is just a bunch of people trying to get by together, in their day-to-day lives. The spirit that I have articulated here was only on display occasionally, and perhaps not much more than in other places and activities. Life is life wherever you find it.
The main difference between my years at Deep Springs and those spent elsewhere perhaps is just this: life there was simpler. It was simpler because it was preparatory. It was about surveying the space of possibilities, laying foundations, and getting one’s bearings. This was mostly an internal process. It was about getting one’s heart in order. And while this process couldn’t happen alone, in isolation, it could happen in a relatively simple, small community of fifty or so people, largely cut off from the mad complexity of life in the real world and of what our future lives in that world would be. The tremendous privilege that Deep Springs students receive is, then, just two years in this simple space in which they can orient themselves and prepare for the complexities of life to come.