At $27,000 a year, girls learn a lesson or two.
Mar 24, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 27 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
Although a little Carol Gilligan goes a long way with me--as does a little of another of Meehan's heroines, Mary (Reviving Ophelia) Pipher--I actually agree wholeheartedly on the value of single-sex education, although I tend, contra Meehan, to believe that it is boys, not girls, who are the more "shortchanged" (a favorite Meehan word) these days by co-ed schools, where there is all too much stress on "caring," "cooperation," and other female-centric notions that make boys gag, and rightly so.
Learning in a school environment specifically geared to the differences in the ways in which the two sexes' brains and bodies function can benefit many young people, especially when they don't have to face daily distractions from the opposite sex at a time of extreme adolescent self-consciousness coupled with extreme adolescent hormonal surges.
My problem is that I myself attended a single-sex private day school in the very Los Angeles haut-prep setting about which Meehan writes. Indeed, my alma mater, the Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, receives a passing mention in her book (in my day, and perhaps now as well, Westlake, Marlborough, and their ilk were our cross-town athletic rivals). During the years of my attendance, Mayfield was operated by the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, a marvelously snobbish order of Catholic nuns that figured, I am proud to say, in Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy. Later on, the 1960s took their toll on the good sisters, who doffed their habits and jumped almost en masse over the wall. Mayfield briefly turned into a hippie school of a kind that would have delighted the youthful Meehan-Goldbergs, then crawled back to sobriety.
One of the chief lessons I learned as a student at an all-girls school was to cast a jaundiced eye on glib assertions about girls' superior "caring" and "connected" qualities. True, the girls at my school weren't especially competitive academically (because most hadn't the slightest interest in academics) but they were murderously competitive in the fields that matter most to girls: looks, clothes, boys, and the accoutrements of wealth and status possessed by their families. This remains true, even in this day of obeisance to supposed feminist sisterhood, as Curtis Sittenfeld's bestselling novel Prep notes in excruciatingly observant detail.
All in all, though, you could do worse than send your daughter to Archer; it looks like a very good school. It has to be because, in the end, after all the rhetoric about "connected" and "integrated" and "progressive" learning is over, high-end prep schools, single-sex and co-ed alike, live or die on the number of graduates they send to Yale and Princeton. Visit Archer's website, and you will see the same stiff (and fundamentally traditional) academic standards that you'll see at the websites for Harvard-Westlake, or for St. Paul's, or for the Dwight School in Manhattan that Paris Hilton briefly attended: four years of English, three years of a foreign language, etc.
You'll see the same photos, too: wholesomely attractive young people hailing from a diverse ethnic spectrum and poised over books, computers, test tubes, and soccer balls. There will be the same genteel liberal politics, the same do-good "service" requirements for graduation, the same scholarships for impoverished minorities. Whatever Diana Meehan's personal arithmetic challenges might be, the math and science at Archer are as rigorous as they are anywhere else in the rarified world of the Ivy League scramble.
What would drive me crazy about Archer, though, would be never getting away from the I-Am-Woman-Hear-Me-Roar, 24/7. Would we always have to name the robot we built in robotics class "Hypatia"? Do we have to take a class in "media literacy," in which we learn that Barbie dolls symbolize "the culture of continual consumption"? After the umpteenth interdisciplinary seminar on Cleopatra, I'd be asking: Can't we please have an interdisciplinary seminar on Antony? And I'd be thinking about transferring to, oh, say, a boys' school.
Charlotte Allen is the author, most recently, of The Human Christ.