ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Senate will be asked to vote this week on a bill requiring that the 1845 Irish Potato Famine be taught in public schools.
But the seemingly innocuous proposal is raising questions about whether the legislature might overstep its authority by mandating curriculum for state schools.
And the emotions still surrounding the 150-year-old tragedy have brought from educators, Irish-Americans and even the British Embassy, which says charges of genocide made by bill supporters are “complete nonsense.”
“It’s highly unusual that the legislature would mandate such a specific part of the curriculum,” said Ron Peiffer, a spokesman for the State Board of Education. The board has not taken a position on the matter yet, he said.
Senate Bill 16 would require public elementary and secondary schools to teach students the causes and effects of the famine that killed 25 percent of Ireland’s population.
It was approved by the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee by an 8-3 vote Thursday and is expected to come to the Senate floor Wednesday.
Also known as “the Hunger,” “the Great Starvation” or simply “the Famine,” it decimated the Irish population, killing more than 1 million people and forcing more than 2 million to immigrate to America.
The legislature passed a resolution last year asking for the history of the famine to be taught, but bill supporters said that’s not enough.
“If they leave it up to us to teach it, it may or may not be done,” said Vincent Nastro, a history teacher for Harford County. “And it’s often not done.”
But school officials claim that the event is already taught as one of the reasons for immigration to America in the late 19th and early 20th century.
“I know it is taught,” Peiffer said. While the state board does not specifically require that the famine be taught, local school boards and individual teachers are free to include it in their curriculum and do, he said.
Opponents of the bill say that if lawmakers can force potato famine lessons into the curriculum, they can mandate other lessons as well, undermining a teacher’s abilities to teach effectively.
“If you include this topic, who else will come to ask that their history be included?” asked Peggy Altoff, executive director for the Maryland Council for the Social Studies, at a committee hearing Wednesday on the bill.
“As soon as you legislate this group or any other group into the curriculum, you may have to listen to another group,” she said.
But many of those who supported the bill Wednesday said that they only learned about the famine through oral tradition, not public education.
They claim the magnitude of death and disease of the famine was largely due to the English government’s failure to provide aid to the starving country. Such a catastrophic act, Nastro said, must be taught in state schools so that students may learn about human rights.
“The history of this event has been largely ignored,” Nastro told the committee. “This is really not doing justice to the event.”
Nuola Moore, who spoke on behalf of the Irish-American Unity Coalition, said the famine began in 1845 when a fungus from America wiped out Ireland’s potato crop, the chief source of food for Irish peasants.
She said the calamity was worsened by the “laissez-faire attitude” of the British government, which did not provide financial help and continued to export food from Ireland after 1846.
By its actions and attitudes, the British government was committing genocide, said Michael Foley, a spokesman for the Ancient Order of the Hibernians.
“The famine was unfortunate,” Foley said. “It was the English complacency that was inexcusable.”
But a British Embassy spokesman denounced Foley’s charges of genocide.
“That is complete nonsense,” said Robert Chatterton Dickson, the embassy spokesman. Genocide denotes a systemic attempt to eradicate a group of people, which was not the case during the famine, he said.
“It is not true in any sense. The policy of the British government was to leave the situation to market forces,” Dickson said. “The famine was a natural disaster and a tragedy.”
Aside from differing interpretations on the famine itself, opponents claim that having the legislating curriculum creates a dangerous trend. They would prefer that the legislature let local school boards decide their own curriculum.
“I believe it sets a bad precedent,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s. Pinsky was one of three committee members who voted against the bill Thursday.
While it has the power to do so, the legislature has usually let the state and local boards of education determine what will and will not be taught. No similar bills have passed the legislature in recent memory.
“It’s a slippery slope,” Pinsky said. “If we start to decide what goes in and what goes out, we’ll have other groups coming to ask that their history be included. Then how do we decide whose pain is worse?
“I don’t think we should open that gate,” he said.