While some universities are building "rock walls" and "lazy rivers" to attract a new generation of students, one liberal arts college in the heart of California's desert takes an audaciously different tack: It requires students to work on a ranch.
A few schools, such as Berea College and Alice Lloyd College (both coincidentally in Kentucky), likewise offer free tuition in exchange for labor; however, none mingles the physical rigors of wrangling cattle with the intellectual rigors of wrangling Aristotle quite like Deep Springs College.
Since its inception in 1917, the school has gained a reputation as being the only two-year college with an elite coterie of students who lasso by day and recite "Hamlet" by night. Living quarters for the 25 students are spartan, and, unlike most campuses, the so-called "cowboy scholars" do not drink, smoke or do drugs. They aren't even permitted to leave the desert valley campus, except in extenuating circumstances.
This radical educational experiment is arguably the most enduring offspring of eccentric hydroelectric mogul and lifelong bachelor Lucien L. Nunn. And now, thanks to L. Jackson Newell's new book, "The Electric Edge of Academe: The Saga of Lucien L. Nunn and Deep Springs College," readers finally have a definitive look at both Nunn's improbable rise as a Western industrialist and his remarkable second career as founder, part-time ranger-scout prophet and ascetic education experimentalist of Deep Springs College.
After fleshing out Deep Springs' founding and philosophy, Newell's portrait pivots to detailing the institution's struggles to survive many financial vicissitudes as well as its ongoing challenge to remain faithful to an educational model made very much in Nunn's unique image. For example, since its beginning, Deep Springs has been exclusively male, yet after a board vote in 2011 to change the policy, the college and trust have faced ongoing litigation.
Newell's book is at its best when situating Deep Springs and its founder within the ideology of the Progressive Era. The school was founded with a progressive, former university president running the country, and it bears the markers of another progressive president, Theodore Roosevelt, whose love for the unsullied Western expanse, education and the strenuous lifestyle mirrored that of Nunn. Like other American progressives, Nunn was infused with an enduring faith in humankind's ability to improve through reform, instruction and self-discipline.
The ongoing legacies of Nunn and Deep Springs College have a consummate scholar-biographer in Newell. And, as a former student and president of Deep Springs College, Newell intimately understands and explains the great successes and struggles of an American institution that's as diminutive, peculiar, powerful and profound as the 5-foot-tall magnate who founded it.
"The Electric Edge of Academe" does not contain any foul language, violence, drug use or sexual content.