Monday, January 02, 2006

Dreyfus in the blogosphere

It's not every day long-dead Alfred Dreyfus causes a blogospheric kerfuffle, or, for that matter, that I am able to combine two of my three interests (those being Dreyfus, blogging, and fluffy dachshunds) into one post. But here it is.

David Gelertner, last mentioned here at WWPD for his circular pro-Bible-in-schools argument, is at it again. This time, blogs, along with the rest of technology, are blamed for keeping students from knowing about the Dreyfus Affair. Clearly computer-use and Dreyfus-knowledge are mutually exclusive. Clearly.

Gelertner writes:

In the early 1970s, many good students took a year--long college--level ("Advanced Placement") survey course in modern European history, and another in American history. Since then, modern educational techniques have worked an outright miracle. Today most incoming college students don't seem to know any history at all. (Except what they've learned by themselves, or their parents have taught them.) The high school history textbooks favored by public schools here in southern Connecticut are pathetic. Their left--wing bias is blatant; the authors don't even try to hide it. Maybe they don't even see it. Recently, a graduate student at a major research university told me that she knew doctoral candidates in humanities departments who had never heard of (for example) Devil's Island and the Dreyfus Affair. They will soon be turned loose on the world as aspiring young scholars.

AP history courses still exist, and Gelertner never says otherwise, yet implies that this is no longer the case. Weird. Furthermore, with each year that passes after any major historical event, fewer students will know about it. It's not that students are getting dumber each year, but that those who knew exact dates of, say, different WWI battles did not know those of the French Revolution, and so on. Gelertner remembers the good old days, even if such days never existed, because that's the good conservative thing to do. Why, remember, way back when, how third-graders would walk to school for 50 miles in the snow, barefoot of course, while reciting Zola's "J'accuse"?

That said, I have to take issue with Matthew Yglesias's claim that the Dreyfus Affair is a minor historical event that even educated people need not know about, that the Affair is "[i]mportant in French history and in Jewish history, but not of earth-shattering global importance."

I happen to believe that the Dreyfus Affair is important to know about, and my interest in the Affair comes not from some random, personal interest in nice-looking French Jewish military men, or even nice-looking Jewish military men in general, but instead from the sense that the Affair was far more important than it's typically made out to be, overshadowed as it was by two world wars. Fascism, Zionism, separation of church and state, "human rights" under attack, all sorts of ideas and movements whose importance has only increased came about during the Affair. To say that Zionism and facism's underpinnings are only important for French or Jewish history is incorrect; what began as mere 19th century French Jewish history turned into something of much broader significance. (Which is precisely what makes 19th century French Jewish history so interesting.) So while the name "Devil's Island" need not ring a bell, and while Proust need not be read in middle schools across the nation, the Affair itself is worth understanding.

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