The same year that Lenin's Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, another shortish, balding radical was launching a social experiment of his own in a patch of desert in the Sierra Nevada foothills bordering the American states of California and Nevada. Lucien Lucius Nunn had made a fortune in mining, banking and power plants, including the electricity station at Niagara Falls, but making money was not his passion. While training engineers and managers to run his businesses, Nunn discovered his vocation was the education of young men. He set up courses that mixed labour with scholarships, and encouraged self-governance by worker-students.

In 1917, Nunn set up a college at a ranch in Deep Springs, just north of Death Valley, in order to perpetuate his ideas.

Isolation would let the university quell the "uproar and strife of material things", he later wrote. "It teaches and believes that our educational institutions too often prepare their most brilliant students to be the ill-paid hirelings of the avaricious. Deep Springs does not disregard … commercialism or the spread of creature comforts, but, recognising 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."

Almost a century later, the valley remains a remote wilderness of desolate beauty, scrub, sand and rock stretching towards a horizon of ice-capped peaks. It appears uninterrupted by modernity save for a paved, empty road, the 168, which squeezes between gulleys and hugs undulating hills like a roller coaster. Stop your car and the only sound is the wind.

"There are signs," read the e-mail from the student communications committee. "We're the only inhabitation in the valley."

A chipped wooden arch etched with the college's name straddles a dirt driveway, at the end of which sits a collection of single-storey buildings. They are modern but have a rough-hewn modesty. Smoke plumes from the chimneys. Nunn's dream endures - but his brainchild is on the cusp of change. After half a century of anguished debate, the single-sex college is closer than ever to accepting female students.

Deep Springs boasts 1,000 hectares but has just 26 students, the number barely growing since the first intake of 20 in 1917. They mostly come from middle-class American families, with a smattering from other continents. They hear about it through word of mouth, lobby sceptical parents to let them apply, fend off the competition (more than 10 applicants for each place) and swiftly establish a close community.

"If I see a shadow at night, I know who it is," says Isaac Stafstrom, a quietly spoken student. "We get to know each other very well. This form of education is incredibly formative."

He adds, with a flash of pride: "We want to share this model with the outside world."

Deep Springs has survived and thrived in the middle of nowhere, claiming a reputation as one of the world's most remarkable liberal arts colleges. Students spend two years studying an eclectic curriculum that includes ancient Greek, genetics, biology, music, philosophy, political science, mathematics, literature and international relations. There is no television, no mobile phone reception and limited internet access.

Tuition and board are free - each student receives a scholarship valued at about US$50,000 - making this a cashless campus and one of a handful of free colleges in the United States; rare, endangered islets amid a rising tide of fees, debts and high drop-out rates. Endowments pay for half the US$1.6 million annual running cost; the rest comes through fundraising.

Students, however, must spend at least 20 hours a week doing "labour" to keep the college-cum-ranch ticking over: cooking, cleaning, gardening, milking cows, saddling horses, herding cattle, butchering chickens, wiring cables, sorting library books, fixing vehicles. They must also administer college affairs: debating and voting on things such as amending the curriculum, sifting applications for next year's intake, hiring staff, deterring coyotes (they are to be shot, according to a recent decision), expanding or restricting internet access and vetting visitor requests.

"It's experiential education," says Jill Lawrence, 62, the college's director of operations who in a former life taught in British schools. "Self-governance means the students have a lot of say. They take it seriously because they live with the consequences." The resultant well-ordered campus is the antithesis of Lord of the Flies.

Deep Springs does not bestow degrees. Graduates earn academic credits that tend to knock a year off subsequent university courses back in the outside world. Most graduates end up at Ivy League schools.

In accordance with the founder's instructions, students here, typically aged 18 to 21, are all male - a tradition that has fuelled a myth of rugged cowboy scholars who break in horses after mornings spent contemplating Plato. But in 2011, the board and trustees, after previous failed attempts, voted to allow females in. The students approved the decision in a majority vote. Some conservative trustees resisted, prompting a court case, but faculty and students began reviewing female applicants' submissions in expectation that the college would be co-ed for the next intake, in July.

It was a false dawn, though, because the school's trustees were thwarted by a partial ruling issued on January 9, meaning the transition to co-education won't happen this year, at least. And parents worried about daughters vanishing into the maw of a sex-starved redneck frat house can rest easy - not that their fears were justified, anyway.

Students revel in unshaven and, in some cases, unwashed masculinity, and everyone prefers herding to washing up; but nobody comes here for the sex or booze, not least because the latter is banned. The hunger is for knowledge, direction and intensity of experience; a desire, as many self-consciously put it, "to be present".

Jacob Greenberg, 20, quit a school in New York to come. "Social life consisted of binge-drinking so you could hook up with other people, and that was depressing. I wanted to be free of the normative expectations of identity."

Other students speak of wanting to "challenge my values" and "blur traditional gender roles". One previous intake studied knitting.

Students recently approved an experimental weekend of silence, but they are not monkish. They have laptops and iPods, blast rock music in their dorms, do stunts such as naked hikes; but their isolation and enforced companionship, living side by side for 24 hours a day, strips away posturing.

"The thing about testosterone is it's a mask," says David Neidorf, the long-serving college president. "In a small community, the mask doesn't last; you can't fake it for long." Some students are straight, others gay, others unsure.

"People fall in love, experience euphoria, despair; it's no different to other colleges," Neidorf says.

He speaks beside a crackling fire in the dining hall, where students and academic staff - half of them women - and four of their children tuck into pasta, kale, squash and banana cake. A portrait of Nunn, his expression stern, gazes down from the mantelpiece. Admitting female students arguably violates his precepts, but students nevertheless take pride in their founder and often cite his "grey book" of writings, including the exhortation: "Gentlemen, for what came ye into the wilderness? You came to prepare for a life of service, with the understanding that superior ability and generous purpose would be expected of you."

A campus T-shirt juxtaposes Lenin and Nunn, and makes a gleeful boast: "In 1917, two radical social utopias were born … only one survives."

Neidorf nixes any suggestion of a utopia: "We're not - we're a college." But it is notable that his students, in the era of Occupy, fee protests and marches against "the 1 per cent", do not rage against the system - because here, to a large extent, they are the system.

The clutter at the dining hall entrance, a small den with old armchairs, gives a taste of the students' passions: rubber boots, a fishing rod, a Penguin classic edition of Rene Descartes' Discourse On the Method, an essay on Flannery O'Connor, heaps of squash (a bumper harvest this year). The notice board mentions a meditation class and a film double bill: Samuel Beckett's Play and Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.

Philippe Chlenski, an affable 18-year-old with a wispy moustache, part of the July 2011 intake, is given dispensation from an hour's labour to give me a campus tour. We visit the library (20,000 volumes), the ramshackle basement gym ("the house of pain"), the dark room, the reading room, the art studio, the carpentry and mechanical workshops, the stables with a dozen horses, the dairy (where students milk cows by hand and hug the beasts for warmth in freezing pre-dawn temperatures), the slaughter pen (where a bloodied sheep hide awaits tanning). We return to the main hall where a student from Hong Kong, 18-year-old Lucas Tse Chun-hin, is singing Schubert's Lieder.

Chlenski is in charge of technology - meaning he must tangle with "Mordor", a closet full of cables, to fix the internet when it breaks - but he is no tech-worshipper. "I'm on the spartan side of the debate over how much we should extend the internet. Extend it too much and it defeats the purpose of being here. Some want Wi-fi everywhere, others want to throw computers out the window."

Does the dispute cause resentment? He shakes his head. "You can't afford to be polemical and stubborn. You have to live here. There's nowhere to go."

Like most students, Chlenski heard of Deep Springs through word of mouth and lobbied his parents to let him apply. "It's a way of being in the world that a regular student isn't. Everything here is integrated."

As if on cue, Stafstrom rides by in cowboy hat, boots and spurs with a plea for assistance: "Hey, do you know how to capture a ram?"

Later that afternoon, another unexpected task: a dead cow requiring transport and disposal.

Brian Kahn, a visiting author and broadcaster, says the drudgery of gaining competence in manual labour, be it cooking or welding, reveals the modern world's interdependence, something urban privilege can otherwise blur. "They get the connectedness of things," he says.

Daniel Leibovitz, 20, the student president, develops this point while working on a broken engine transmission. With a bobble hat, oily latex gloves and a screwdriver, he hardly looks like a scholar. "Thought is concretised by our experiences," he says. "Thought not only informs action, it compels it." Like many students, he is a fan of Nietzsche, but with a Deep Springs twist. "This is an exercise in humility," he says, tapping the transmission. "I suck at this. And that's valuable. Because pride is an impediment to a successful life of service."

That may sound grandiose, but it's sincere, and in a country where the military dominates the concept of service, Deep Springs reclaims it for civilian pursuits. Many graduates become academics and physicians.

The college is an enigma to the nearest town, Bishop, an hour's drive away. One rumour contends it's a rehabilitation centre for homicidal adolescents, others suggest Brokeback Mountain, or a cult. But to the dozen or so staff, it's a plum posting.

"I'd never ridden horses before, and here I am herding cattle," marvels Ronald Mortensen, 67, a retired diplomat who teaches international relations. "It was on my bucket list." And the students are a dream. "They complained to me that the reading list was too short. Imagine."

Dick Dawson, 82, the music teacher, says they always exceed his expectations. "Simply put, they're amazing."

Is any of this replicable? Could Deep Springs become a model for colleges reeling from cutbacks and debt? Probably not. Deep Springs' formula requires isolation and diminutiveness. Keeping numbers low controls costs and makes free tuition viable.

"We're pretty clear on the fact that we don't want to get bigger," Neidorf says.

So it stands as a one-off, a strange, beguiling institution in a desert valley where human purpose is debated amid coyotes and cows. The arrival of female students, if they ever come, will change it, but perhaps not by much. Staff say the essays submitted by female applicants were indistinguishable from those of male applicants. The class of 2012 has little sense of burden about being perhaps one of the last all-male intake.

"The absence of women? You know, I haven't noticed it that much," muses Tse. "You're just so busy here."

Guardian News & Media



     Mark Footer


Kowloon cowboy

What attraction does Deep Springs hold for a young man from Hong Kong?

"I wanted to be with people in love with studying," says Lucas Tse Chun-hin, who has been a student at the college for nine months. "Participation in democratic politics drew me and working on an alfalfa/cattle ranch was most certainly an exciting prospect."

Tse, a Kowloon boy, spent his school years in the city at the Yew Chung International and Chinese International schools.

"On an evening in the autumn of my last year in high school, I was procrastinating … and searched online for alternative institutions of higher education. Deep Springs came up several times. I briefly looked into it and two days later I started writing my [application] essays. I discovered the school right before the deadline."

What did his parents think of him wanting to run off to the middle of nowhere?

"As can only be expected, the place first bewildered [them]. With time it impressed, and by last spring they were fully supportive, and they've been right behind me ever since.

"[Deep Springs] is a very special place," adds Tse. "Not without its flaws, certainly, but I expected a lot, and it's been fulfilling in almost every regard.

"Community is what unites the experience of being here. Tackling texts, vaccinating cattle, evaluating applications for the incoming class, dishing out quesadillas at midnight - things you can do elsewhere, but rarely together and with the same people. You begin to understand what it means to live with others.

"Living in a community compels me to question the prejudices I've picked up over the years. Isn't that the point of education? To offer a training in humility; to show how big the world is."

On the other hand, he says, "you can't escape people here, including yourself. That's painful sometimes, but I think it's well worth the trouble, if you can call it that."

And how does the setting compare with pollution-blanketed Kowloon?

"The valley is still breathtaking for this city boy; clean air, snowy peaks, the star-studded sky. [Inspired by it] I work harder, whether at early morning irrigation or class reading.

"It was all so strange at first, but as the months went by, it became clear how right the isolation and space and clear air were for me."

Tse is due to graduate from Deep Springs in June, next year.

"Then, I'll either leave or stay on as a cowboy."