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.

Then there's the story of how Archer got its name, after a living-room brainstorming session at which Meehan and her female friends ("lawyers and poets, therapists and grandmothers") munched on pita pockets, picked out the colors for the school uniforms (as the McManus passage indicates, attire plays an important role in this book) and decided it was okay to call it a "girls'" school even though the word "girls" was kind of politically incorrect. One of Meehan's friends, Archer cofounder Vicky Shorr (described in an appendix as "fluent in Portuguese and Joan of Arc") announced that she had had a 3 A.M. vision of Isabel Archer, the "independent young woman" (Shorr's words) who was the heroine of Henry James's Portrait of a Lady. Now, I haven't looked at Portrait of a Lady since my college freshman English class, but I do recall that Isabel, in James's ironic molding, was so "independent" that she was something of a fool, throwing over a handsome and decent American suitor for a foppish poseur (and fortune-hunter and adulterer) who was also an American but had adopted a pretentious European veneer designed to appeal to naive and culturally aspiring young ladies of means like Isabel. (You might say that he was the John F. Kerry of his time.)

Well, at least the poets and therapists didn't give Archer the name they'd originally picked out for the school: Adelphi. As one of Meehan's friends explained at the wine-and-pita party, "Adelphi means 'sister' in Greek." Actually not; it's a Latinization of the Greek word for "brothers."

Meehan describes herself and her husband, screenwriter/producer Gary David Goldberg, as "ex-hippies and granola-crunchers" who dress in tie-dye (or at least did back then) and live the simple bohemian life. Maybe so, but they are ex-hippies who made really good (more power to them, of course), because the only action in Learning Like a Girl that doesn't take place in Los Angeles's ultra-affluent Westside (Beverly Hills and beyond) consists of the daily commutes that Archer's scholarship students make by bus from their ethnically "diverse" neighborhoods in down-market, heavily minority South-Central Los Angeles.

At its founding, Archer occupied a congeries of vacant commercial space in Pacific Palisades, just south of Malibu, then moved in 1999 to its present location, an eight-acre former Eastern Star retirement home of strikingly handsome Spanish Revival architecture on Sunset Boulevard.

"People here do stuff that is essentially inventive," writes Meehan of her fellow movie types and the other high-salaried symbolic analysts who are her Westside neighbors. Learning Like a Girl is sprinkled with the dropped names of Meehan's Hollywood and political pals who gave Archer its initial boost: Not only Hanks and Friedan, but also Kate Capshaw, Frances Lear, Barbara Boxer, Pat Schroeder, ex-Texas governor Ann Richards, and Nancy Daly Riordan, wife of the former Los Angeles mayor.

Archer got started after the formerly all-girls Westlake School in Bel Air, where one of the Meehan-Goldberg daughters had matriculated (that fills in the picture of the Meehan-Goldberg family finances), merged in 1991 with the formerly all-boys Harvard School to become coeducational. The merger outraged the Gilligan-saturated Meehan, who had a younger daughter she'd planned to send to Westlake and, apparently, quite a few other Westlake parents and alums. And so Archer was born. Learning Like a Girl chronicles its growing pains: fights with various homeowners' groups in Brentwood who objected to the large concentration of teen-agers, "Lucy" the dud first headmistress who showed up at the school's opening in an "all-white suit and sunglasses" (oops--after Labor Day, I guess), and the financial problems that can beset even the highest-tuition schools.

You have to give Meehan, Shorr, and the third Archer cofounder, Megan Callaway, credit for pulling the whole thing off. It's one thing to sit in your living room talking about starting your own prep school from scratch, especially a school that plans to compete at the very top of the market, and it's another thing to follow through. (In an appendix, Meehan offers some useful tips for would-be school founders on how to stay afloat and avoid some of the crazies who will inevitably attach themselves to this kind of project--although I wish she hadn't insisted on analogizing the process to the flights of Canada geese over her summer home in Vermont.) And I came to quite like Gary Goldberg, who, onetime granola-cruncher though he might be, informed one of his daughters, according to his wife, that the writing assignment she planned to turn in at her "permissive" elementary school was substandard.

The daughter's response: "I feel good about myself, that's all that matters."

"Actually, it's not," replied her father. A man after my own heart.

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.

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