Outsider takes scholarly look at Bryn Mawr


History: Two years after the school tried to stop its publication, `A Vision for Girls' sees the light of day.

May 30, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT'S BEEN nearly 10 years since Andrea Hamilton set out to write a social history of Baltimore's Bryn Mawr School. It's been six years since she sold publication rights to the prestigious Johns Hopkins University Press - and two years since Bryn Mawr, without explanation, tried to kill the book.

That makes Wednesday's official publication of Hamilton's A Vision for Girls: Gender, Education and the Bryn Mawr School well worth noting. As promised when Bryn Mawr yielded to news reports in The Sun and The Chronicle of Higher Education, and to a petition signed by more than 140 international scholars, there's a disclaimer at the beginning of the book: Bryn Mawr wants nothing to do with the opinions expressed therein.

But don't go out and buy this scholarly work - there are 26 pages of footnotes - if you want salacious gossip about Bryn Mawr or even a mild attack on Baltimore's 119-year-old college preparatory school for girls. If anything, this look at Bryn Mawr is affirming, particularly in its views of the modern North Baltimore institution. Hamilton's primary sin seems to be that she is an outsider writing dispassionately about some of the mistakes and missteps Bryn Mawr made along the way, among them how slowly the school (and all other Baltimore private schools) came to achieve racial and ethnic diversity in its faculty and student body.

A Vision for Girls is a skillfully written book that places Bryn Mawr in the context of girls' education in America across the 20th century. It's as much a history of single-sex education as it is a history of Bryn Mawr, which has changed greatly since 1885, the year M. Carey Thomas and four friends (including railroad heiress Mary Garrett) founded the school in the belief that college-bound girls should have an education as rigorous as that of college-bound boys.

One of Hamilton's themes is that Bryn Mawr eventually relaxed some of that rigor, an idea that the school's pooh-bahs apparently found objectionable. But other girls schools changed - and other boys schools, for that matter. Witness the fact that you don't find Greek in the 2004 curriculum of most prep schools.

Hamilton's book is an expanded version of her doctoral dissertation at Tulane University. I've also read the thesis, and Hamilton and her Hopkins Press editors have done a good job of adding historical context; more biography of Edith Hamilton, the school's brilliant 26-year headmistress; and a concluding chapter bringing readers up to date. (The lack of photographs is a glaring deficiency.)

"The Bryn Mawr School is a working institution, with a history reflecting successes as well as flaws," Hamilton writes. "Its history is suggestive of the shifting and interrelated ways that gender, schools and society have operated in the past and continue to operate today."

So after all is said and written, what is it that stuck in Bryn Mawr's craw? Nothing in particular, it appears, but rather the fact that Hamilton was an outsider writing about the mother church. (She lives in Dallas and did her research while a student in New Orleans.) Private schools are closed societies, and their official histories are almost always written by insiders.

In this case, the ultimate insider, a respected former headmistress, objected to Hamilton's work after it was sold to Hopkins Press. School officials then scrambled absurdly to build a case against publication, even though the press already had put the book through rigorous review.

There's an outsider's tone to the book that readers won't find in authorized histories. Hamilton, for example, can come right out and say that many anxious parents turn to schools such as Bryn Mawr to ensure their daughters' future success. Parents of mid-20th-century Bryn Mawr students, of course, took for granted the social position their daughters eventually would occupy.

It goes without saying that Hamilton, 37, is thrilled and relieved to see her book published. "I never thought it would actually happen," she says. But she's worried that Bryn Mawr's bizarre attempt to censor will detract readers from seeing A Vision for Girls as the excellent work of scholarship it is. In their attempt to quash the book, Bryn Mawr officials only called attention to it and, in a kind of Heisenberg effect, changed its very nature in the eyes of many readers.

A correction

In The Sun's May 16 coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision, a photo caption mistakenly said retired Baltimore educator Betty Williams earned a master's degree at Columbia University.

Williams, 80, did take graduate courses at Columbia, her tuition and expenses paid by Maryland in a scholarship program designed to perpetuate segregation at the University of Maryland, but she actually earned her master's at the Johns Hopkins University. She was later principal of Eastern High School.

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