Old School No More

Economist Old School ImageIt sounds like a story written by Cormac McCarthy: In 1917, a wealthy tycoon creates a college hidden away in the isolated farmlands of California.  Young men apply and are admitted tuition-free, and in return they work the farm – bailing alfalfa and raising cattle.  The classrooms include a leather-making shop, a smithy, and a library.  You spend the day fixing a boiler and repairing harnesses, the afternoon and evening dedicated to discussing Neitszche. It brings to mind ascetic images of hard work, cowboys, and the epitome of male camaraderie in the lonesome west.  Young boys arrive, and leave rugged, harden men – off to change the world.

Deep Springs

Except this setting is as real as can be.  Deep Springs college is the legacy of Lucien L. Nunn, an American banker and prospector born in 1850, who moved west after attending Oberlin College and Harvard Law School.  With his fortune, he founded a liberal arts college of a different kind: Deep Springs students study art, philosophy and science, and engage in intense seminars and independent studies. The only required courses are public speaking and composition.  Governance comes from student-led committees.  Boys are assigned ‘teams’ – from repairing broken fence lines to fixing dinner for the entire student body.  Nunn’s dream was to create a place where his pillars – academics, labor, and self-governance – offer “promising young men” a place to learn.  And that is how it still is today – for men only.

Except Deep Springs is going coed – maybe.  Recently, the student-led admission committee and the Trustees approved female applications for the class of 2013.  The decision to admit females came after almost 40 years of lobbying by the students to let females apply and enroll, only to be rebuffed by the college’s Board of Trustees, claiming that they were obliged to protect Nunn’s wishes to create a place for ‘promising young men.’ Given that the college is not suffering financially or academically – after completing the required two-year program, graduates transfer to Ivy League schools – it was hard to argue that the school needed to go against Nunn’s estate.  Just as the Trustees acquiesced, however, a judge ruled that women could not enroll, and the 140 females that applied for this year’s 6 openings were all denied.   The battle will continue.

The plight of Deep Springs reminds me of a news story I watched as a college junior about Mills College.  Mills is a women’s only college, whose Trustees, to stave off falling application numbers and ever-rising tuition rates, voted to recruit and admit men.  The women revolted, offering to pay higher tuition in order to remain free of men.  After long negotiations, the Trustees relented, and Mills is still all-female and thriving.

I was so intrigued by the passion of the Mills College students, that I did my undergraduate senior research thesis on the topic of single-sex education.  It was thought that without vying for the attention of boys, or competing against them for social status (such as class president), girls would do better academically and develop less-conservative gender stereotypes.  After spending a year reading about adolescent subculture, and traveling across the US to many coeducational and all-female high schools surveying girls and reviewing their academic records, my research finally supported what many had concluded before:  At least for females, attending all-girls schools was no better than attending coeducational schools, in terms of academic achievement and the formation of gender stereotypes.

What couldn’t be disputed, however, was that girls at many of the single-sex schools loved the fact there were no boys in the classroom.  If given the choice, they would attend an all-female college.  It wasn’t that they disliked boys or feared them – they just loved studying and learning without them.  They appreciated the option of going to all female colleges, and the opportunity to explore what it means to be female without the pressure and influence of males.

But today, that option really doesn’t exist for men.  Hundreds of years ago, colleges were male-only, and the educational system responded by creating women’s colleges.  During the 1950s and 60s, however, many all-male schools went coeducational – either due to legal reasons (publicly funded schools could not discriminate on the basis of sex) or changing social norms.  By then the number of all-female schools has dwindled too, going the route that Mills averted.  There are, however, 60 all-female colleges in the US today.

Deep Springs is one of only four all-male colleges in the US (Wabash, Morehouse, and Hampden-Sydney, are the other three).  This doesn’t include seminaries, or smaller colleges where men live on an all-male campus but still take classes at nearby coeducational schools.

I will be sad to see Deep Springs go coeducational, but if that is what the students and trustees think it best, then so be it.  But once it changes, it will never be able to go back, and that will be the loss of a truly unique environment.  I truly believe that part of going to college is the opportunity to retreat to a place where all you need to do is think and learn – mostly, to think and learn what it takes to become who you are.  That cloistered environment will be different for each, and for some boys it might be one free of the social pressures of the opposite sex; it might be Deep Springs.