Men In America
2:52 pm
Wed July 9, 2014

On Calif. Cattle Ranch, Students Wrangle With Meaning Of Manhood

Originally published on Wed July 9, 2014 7:39 pm

For All Things Considered's "Men in America" series, NPR's Kelly McEvers sent this report on Deep Springs College — the all-male college that her husband attended, and where he and McEvers have both taught.

About a hundred years ago, a man named L.L. Nunn was building power plants in the American West. He wanted a place where workers could be educated — and educated people could do work.

He bought a ranch in the high California desert, in a remote valley east of the Sierra Nevada, and called it Deep Springs College. Nunn said he chose that place because the desert has a voice.

In what is now one of Deep Springs' founding texts, Nunn wrote that if you listen, the voice will talk to you. And this is what it will say: "Gentlemen, for what came ye into the wilderness?"

Not just for academic training, Nunn wrote, not just for ranch life and not to learn a trade or profession. You came, he said, to prepare for a life of service.

His idea was that labor, education and self-governance should exist in the same place — and that that place should groom the country's next leaders.

A century later, what does it mean to be a man at such a place?

A History Of Manly Ideals

Deep Springs is more than a school; it's also a ranch and a farm, where students help harvest alfalfa and herd cattle. And the two-year institution is one of the last remaining all-male colleges in the country that's not religious or military.

On a hot, dry day, David Welle, who attended Deep Springs in the 1980s, gives a tour of the college. When you first arrive at Deep Springs as a new student, he says, there are all these stories in the air, about the grizzled cowboys who worked at nearby ranches and the prowess of students who came before you.

"Guys who would build the most immense gates that would be indestructible to 2,000-pound cows," Welle says, "or guys that would load 5 tons of hay by themself, in one day."

They were guys who'd done well in high school, and then spent their time at Deep Springs living up to the manly ideal of working hard and being strong.

For a long time, this is how it was for students who came to Deep Springs. More and more, though, Deep Springers are calling that manly ideal into question.

Steer-Wrangling With A Wink

The only real town near Deep Springs is Bishop, Calif., where some students recently went for a festival called Mule Days. They're getting ready for a steer-decorating contest. Teams have to wrangle young male cattle and tie a bow on each one's tail.

Nick Jones, who grew up in suburban Colorado, says he was worried Deep Springs would be like other places where teenage boys get together: competitive and macho. But it's not what he'd feared.

"I have a suspicion that Deep Springs is the least macho right now that it's ever been," Jones says.

That's because, in addition to being a ranch and a farm, Deep Springs is also a rigorous liberal arts college — a place where archetypes like cowboys have been called into question for a long time.

"I think people are generally pretty self-critical, so they don't hang onto a lot of anxiety around proving their masculinity," Jones says.

So now, when Deep Springers do things like get on a horse to ride to a steer-decorating contest, they do it with a wink — acknowledging the manly pose and mocking it, too.

At the contest, the Deep Springers get their steer — but the announcer calls out that an all-female group from Oregon State beat them.

Playing With The Mythos Of Masculinity

Back in the Deep Springs Valley, in a field full of hundreds of cows, Zach Robinson, a mixed-race cowboy and aspiring math and computational science major, is filling a trough with water.

"For most of Deep Springs' history, the reality of the situation has been that our cowboys have been straight white males," Robinson says.

"I think that makes it more exciting for me in some ways, because it's like, you know, I get to play with the mythos a little — I get to exist in this world while at the same time not really being a part of it," Robinson says. "And I'm not really sure I will want to wholly embrace, like, a totally macho aesthetic."

Bach Tong, a gay poet originally from Vietnam, is cutting onions for a barbecue at the college.

He says he pushes other students when he thinks they're trying to be too macho — like when they act like it's cool to be muddy and unwashed, something he says an immigrant like him would never think.

"It's interesting. It's become something very exotic and something to celebrate," Tong says, "you know, how many days someone hasn't showered."

So if you ask Deep Springers what it means to be a man, the answer is: to question what it means to be a man.

That questioning is one thing Philippe Chlenski says he'll take from Deep Springs when he goes back into the world, to his hometown, Chicago.

He says this while milking a cow.

"I feel like I have a new position from which I can now engage with masculinity outside, having seen things I associated so closely with masculinity kind of fracture from it in some ways."

All this fracturing and questioning could result in big changes at Deep Springs.

The students, faculty and board of trustees recently voted to go coed: The college had even started taking female applicants.

But a few alumni are fighting that decision. It's now up to the California courts to decide whether this place is just for, as Nunn's desert voice puts it, "gentlemen" — or if it's for everybody.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: You're the man.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Paterfamilias.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: Boy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 4: Son.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 5: Young fellas like yourself.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 6: Gentlemen.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 7: Dude.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 8: I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man.

SIEGEL: And with that, it's time for our series exploring the lives of men.

Today, we enter the college years. First at a very unusual place - Deep Springs College. It's set in a remote valley east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. It's more than a college; it's a ranch, and a farm, where students help harvest alfalfa and herd cattle. One thing about those students - they're all male. In fact, Deep Springs is one of the last remaining all-male colleges in the country that is neither religious nor military.

NPR's Kelly McEvers sent this report.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: About 100 years ago, a man named L.L. Nunn was building power plants in the American West, and he wanted a place where workers could be educated. And educated people could do work. So, he bought a ranch in the high California desert. And called it Deep Springs College. Nunn says he chose the place because the desert has a voice.

In what is now one of Deep Springs' founding texts, Nunn wrote, if you listen, the voice will talk to you.

And, this is what it'll say...

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Gentlemen, for what came ye into the wilderness?

MCEVERS: ...Not just for academic training, Nunn wrote, not just for ranch life, and not to learn a trade or profession. You came, he said, to prepare for a life of service. That was the idea - that labor, education, and self-governance should exist in the same place; and this place should groom our country's next leaders.

I recently spent a weekend at Deep Springs to find out what it means to be a man at such a place. Full disclosure - my husband was a student there once. He and I both have taught there too.

DAVID WELLE: And this orchard goes back, I think, all the way to the original ranch.

MCEVERS: The valley is hot and dry, and the sky is blue and huge. David Welle leads a tour for some Deep Springs alums. He went there in the '80s. He says when you first arrive at Deep Springs as a new student, there are all these stories in the air about grizzled cowboys who worked at nearby ranches, and the prowess of students who came before you.

WELLE: Guys who would build the most immense gates that would be indestructible to 2,000 pound cows. Or, guys that would load five tons of hay by them self in one day.

MCEVERS: Guys who'd done well in high school, and then spent their time at Deep Springs living up to the manly ideal of working hard and being strong. For a long time, this is how it was for a lot of students who came to Deep Springs. More and more though, Deep Springers are calling that manly ideal into question.

The only real town near Deep Springs is Bishop, California, where some current students had gone to a mule rodeo.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: As long as we tie that knot quickly, practice - and then we will win.

MCEVERS: The students are getting ready for a steer decorating contest - that's where your team has to wrangle a young male cow and tie a bow on its tail. Nick Jones grew up in suburban Colorado. He says, he was worried Deep Springs would be like other places where teenage boys get together - competitive and macho.

But instead...

NICK JONES: I mean, I have a suspicion that Deep Springs might be the least macho right now that it's ever been.

MCEVERS: ...That's because, in addition to being a ranch and a farm, Deep Springs is also a rigorous liberal arts college. A place where archetypes like cowboys have been interrogated for a long time.

JONES: I think people are generally pretty self-critical, so they don't hold onto a lot of anxiety around like, proving their masculinity.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Hold your stomach muscles in; make me proud.

MCEVERS: So now, when Deep Springers do things like get on a horse to ride to a steer decorating contest, they do it with a wink. Acknowledging the manly pose and mocking it too.

Pretty soon, it's the contest. The Deep Springers get their steer, but the team that's declared first is an all-female group from Oregon State.

ROXANA ROBINSON: I'm putting a hose into a blue trough...

MCEVERS: Back in the Deep Springs Valley, I meet Zach Robinson, a mixed-race cowboy and future math and computational science major.

ROBINSON: ...For most of Deep Springs' history, the reality of the situation has been that our cowboys have been straight, white males. (Laughing) I think it makes it more exciting for me in some ways, because it's like, you know, I get to play with (unintelligible), I get to exist in this world while at the same time, not really being a part of it. And I'm not entirely sure I will want to fully embrace like, a totally macho aesthetic.

And also, I'm going to need to run and trim this off so...

MCEVERS: Yup.

ROBINSON: ...You might want to step back again.

MCEVERS: In the kitchen, I meet Bach Tong, a gay poet from Vietnam who cooks for the college. He's cutting onions for dinner. He says he pushes other students when he thinks they're trying to be too macho - like, acting like it's all cool to be muddy and unwashed. Something he says an immigrant like him would never do.

BACH TONG: It's interesting, you know, it's become like something very exotic, and something to celebrate, you know, how many days someone hasn't showered.

MCEVERS: How many days someone hasn't showered?

TONG: Yeah.

MCEVERS: So, if you ask students at Deep Springs what it means to be a man, the answer is - to question what it means to be a man.

That questioning is one thing Philippe Chlenski says he'll take from Deep Springs when he goes back into the world, to his hometown Chicago.

He says this while milking a cow.

PHILIPPE CHLENSKI: I feel like I have a new position from which I can now engage with masculinity outside, having seen, like, things that I associated so closely with masculinity kind of fracture from it in some ways.

MCEVERS: All this fracturing and questioning could result in big changes at Deep Springs. The students, faculty and Board of Trustees recently voted to go coed. The college had even started taking female applicants. But a couple alums are fighting that decision. It's now up to the California courts to decide whether this place is just for - as the voice of the desert says...

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Gentlemen.

MCEVERS: ...Or, for everybody. Kelly McEvers. NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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