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60 Minutes visits Deep Springs College

60 Minutes visits Deep Springs College
60 Minutes visits Deep Springs College 03:58

In a remote valley deep in the California desert lies an experiment in higher education like no other. Here, at Deep Springs College, roughly two dozen students study great books and perform difficult, manual labor on a working ranch. They do this without any of the usual staples of college life – there is no drinking at Deep Springs, there are no football games and students can't even leave the valley while class is in session, except in rare circumstances.

Deep Springs is physically remote, but isolation isn't just a geographic feature of the school, it is a core principle. L.L. Nunn, an eccentric mining and electricity magnate who founded the college over a century ago, believed that sequestering students in the desert far away from the outside world would allow them to focus more fully on their education and personal development.

"The desert has a deep personality; it has a voice," Nunn wrote. "Great leaders in all ages have sought the desert and heard its voice. You can hear it if you listen, but you cannot hear it while in the midst of uproar and strife for material things."

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The campus of Deep Springs College

The world has changed a lot since Deep Springs opened in 1917, and though it's left to the student body to determine what isolation means in practice, the principle has remained a constant.

"The point of [isolation] is essentially to not be distracted by the outside world, outside entanglements," explained Ziani Paiz, who was a second-year Deep Springs student when we met her earlier this year.  "I think isolation really helps in keeping you... grounded."

Deep Springs is predicated on the idea that this unique mixture of environment and circumstances – isolation, rigorous academics, difficult labor and a degree of autonomy – can produce the leaders of tomorrow. The college is a highly selective two-year program, after which students usually transfer to some of the most competitive universities in the country.

But it's not an easy two years and can take a very particular type of student to find this lifestyle appealing.

Tim Gipson, Deep Springs' ranch manager, described the students who choose to attend: "One thing they have in common, almost all of the students that come here, is that they're searching for something different and unique," Gipson explained to 60 Minutes' Jon Wertheim. "They're really searching for a deeper meaning of life."

The video above was produced by Mabel Kabani and Sarah Shafer Prediger. It was edited by Sarah Shafer Prediger.

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