The Magazine

Hollywood High

At $27,000 a year, girls learn a lesson or two.

Mar 24, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 27 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Learning Like a Girl

Educating Our Daughters in Schools of Their Own

by Diana Meehan

PublicAffairs, 324 pp., $24.95

This book, a back-patting history by cofounder Diana Meehan, of the early years (if you can call the 1990s "early") of the Archer School for Girls in Brentwood, California--yes, that Brentwood, where O.J. killed Nicole, if he did it--comes with jacket raves by Arianna Huffington, the late Betty Friedan, and Brooke Shields. Three of my favorite people! Plus Tom Hanks, whose daughter graduated from Archer. Hanks says that if you enroll at Archer, you'll "one day rule our city-state and the world."

You'd better, because your parents are going to be out a hell of a lot of dough. At $27,200 in tuition a year, plus a $2,180 mandatory "transportation fee," plus God knows what else, Archer, founded in 1995, appears to be the most expensive private day school in Los Angeles, beating out long-established all-girls Marlborough in Hancock Park ($25,250 a year) as well as the co-ed, ultra-prestigious Harvard-Westlake in Bel Air and North Hollywood (a mere $25,000). At Archer, though, at least according to Meehan, you get something extra that could well be worth that top dollar: total immersion in the "different voice" philosophy of Carol Gilligan, the feminist theorist who believes that girls, unlike boys, are gentle creatures who shy away from competition, whether in academics or in sports, and who would rather (in Meehan's words) "be part of a caring community" where they "compete with one eye on the emotional reactions of others, caring about feelings as much as winning." The watchwords at Archer, says Meehan, are "cooperative," "progressive," "connected learning," and of course, "caring."

"A caring community is a good place to learn," writes Meehan, and "a caring community is also a place to heal." Hence the title of her book: Learning Like a Girl.

Meehan gives us an example (and I'm quoting her word-for-word) of the way girls, in contrast to boys, use both hemispheres of their brains to tackle math problems: "If a train leaves Chicago and another leaves Baltimore, both going sixty miles an hour, when will they crash? 'WAIT. WAIT!' say the girl mathematicians. 'Are there families on those trains? Are there animals? Why can't we stop the trains?'"

The first thought that passed through my own brain's two hemispheres when I read this was: Don't worry, girls--even in the heyday of the B & O Railroad, there never was a direct run between Baltimore and Chicago, much less one in which two trains traveling at high speed in opposite directions shared the same track. My second thought was: Didn't Larry Summers say something like this a couple of years ago? Isn't that why he's no longer president of Harvard?

Learning Like a Girl is crammed with this sort of giddiness, even though Meehan seems to have a Ph.D. in something or other and boasts a career as an award-winning documentary filmmaker (mostly films about--you guessed it--women). When I got to this paragraph, on page 46, I started counting the pages until the end (only 278 to go!) and wondering whether the publisher, PublicAffairs Books, was a vanity press. It's not, but you can't help but think that some of its editors might have been on that Chicago-Baltimore train:

Jim McManus [a veteran girls'school administrator who served as consultant for Archer during its formative months] is a prudent man. This is confirmed by his wardrobe, which is invariably khaki trousers, Oxford shirt, and Irish tweed jacket with the narrow shoulders popular in the 1960s, and before that in the 1940s, and, I think, 1920s. He wears this outfit irrespective of the temperature, which is often warm, as if clothes were meant to be all-terrain, all-weather garments in which one can climb Everest in the manner of Sir Edmund Hillary, or take tea, also in the manner of Sir Edmund Hillary.

Hmmm. Edmund Hillary scaling the Himalayas in a tweed jacket. There's a name for this kind of prose; it's called writing like a girl.