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June 24th, 2017

Insight

The key to it all

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Jan. 13, 2016

What is this thing called a liberal education that we're always hearing about -- and some of us never tire preaching about with your more than kind indulgence? It is an education fit for liberty, but please, no drums, no buglers. No stirring slogans but thoughtful language that opens windows to civilization, not tyranny.

Languages, like people, have their rises and declines, periods of growth and stagnation, like real people -- not cardboard constructs. They disappear and reappear at sometimes the most surprising intervals -- whole ages or in sudden spurts. Call it the verbal theory of value.

Just open Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" and fling open a past but ever present world of what truly matters: the search for domestic tranquility. Or skim Tolstoy's opening to "Anna Karenina": "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," and there before you lies the outline of a whole world. The key has been handed to every educated reader who is willing to use it.

Strangely enough, the creation of some languages -- the words, words, words, words -- precedes that of the state, the land, everything else. And when ancient/medieval/modern Hebrew began to burst on the world again like an irrepressible life force, a whole legion of writers, periodicals and literary disputes was already decades old.

Now a new star has suddenly appeared in the morning sky, not a Homer or Shakespeare but the most extraordinary of writers: an ordinary one. Her name is Maya Arad, born 1971, raised in the military settlements of Nahal Oz and Rishon L'Tzion. After her standard tour in the Israeli army came a long series of academic degrees awarded by various universities and the world.

But don't let all those credentials impress or deter you. To read her is to read Jane Austen again, but all anew. Much like Austen, she deals with "the most major of the minor issues: family life, the center of all our beings." Her heroine, Idit, is 39. And her dreams, like ours, are anything but heroic; they are "only" basic. Like any other girl, she wants a man, a family: "She will meet him entirely by chance in a museum. Walking on the shore. In the health food store by the granola and whole grains with the fabric labels they have both brought with them from home. Or at a bookstore...."

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This was her dream scenario. Modern romance meets Hebrew revived. Boy meets girl, for nothing ever changes -- except everything does to the educated man open to all possibilities, and to the Hebrew itself. Yet it and the world would be quite different, say, in Korean or Aramaic. Maybe that's why the educated man, or woman, is never bored but continually fascinated. What greater endorsement of a liberal education? What sadder condemnation of ignorance?

Woman's lot is never an easy one, and an educated woman should never close her eyes to that unchanging reality. Being educated means knowing more about the human condition, never less. Don't be fooled by all those hearts and flowers. They're as ephemeral as the frosting on a wedding cake. Tasty but misleading. Happiness is to be attained unnoticed, on the fly, incidentally, while busy doing something else, never held tight or it flies away.

See what is meant by an education? La vida es sueno, said Calderon de la Barca. Nothing changes and everything does. Any other questions? Keep asking. That is the beginning and middle and end of a liberal education. It never ends.

Now go and study. Live long and prosper. Along with the liberal arts.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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