Senate bill on Irish famine advances Schools' curriculum would include history of mass starvation

January 30, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

After a spirited hour of debate that prompted lawmakers to reflect on their ethnic histories, the Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval yesterday to a bill that would require public BTC schools to teach children about the Irish potato famine.

The 26-18 vote came after the bill's sponsor, Sen. Perry Sfikas, accused educators of negligence in failing to include any mention of the 1845-1850 mass starvation in school curriculums.

The bill, which is opposed by state education officials, is expected to receive final Senate approval and be sent to the House for consideration.

The legislation would require public elementary and secondary schools to teach children about a tragedy that killed 1 million of Ireland's 8 million people and set off a historic wave of immigration to the United States.

The famine, exacerbated by Britain's decision to continue exporting Irish food after a fungus killed the potato crop, is a source of bitterness between the two nations.

Sfikas, a Greek-American Democrat from East Baltimore, said the famine was a pivotal event in the family history of 45 million Americans of Irish descent. He urged colleagues to "send a Cruise missile across the bow of the educational establishment" by passing his bill.

Yesterday's vote was about more than Irish history.

The debate became a vehicle for senators of both parties and many ethnic groups to express their resentment of the perceived unresponsiveness of the State Board of Education and local school boards.

Senators listed grievances ranging from student performance tests to community service requirements.

Irish against Irish

In keeping with Ireland's turbulent history, the bill pitted Irishman against Irishman.

"For Patrick John Hogan to stand here and oppose this seems a little ridiculous," said the Montgomery County Republican, who said he had ancestors who died in the famine.

Hogan went on to argue that legislators should not impose curriculum mandates on educators.

Boards called 'unresponsive'

But Sen. Michael Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat who bears the name of an Irish revolutionary hero, said 30 years of teaching had shown him that boards of education are "monumentally unresponsive."

In a pointed reference to the state's abolition of Baltimore's former school board last year, Collins argued that legislators have no duty to defer to local education authorities.

"Sometimes we just have to tell them to teach something," he said. "Sometimes we have to tell them to get out of town."

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who noted that her family had been caught in the anti-Jewish pogroms in Eastern Europe, warned against letting politics dictate content of curriculum.

"If politics can say what's in, politics can say what's out," the Baltimore Democrat said.

Other opponents argued that the Senate was advancing onto a "slippery slope" by requiring that one ethnic group's plight be included in the curriculum.

Possible domino effect

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, an African-American Democrat from Baltimore County, said that if legislators require teaching about the Irish famine, they also would have to adopt mandates concerning the extermination of some Native American tribes, the Dred Scott decision, the Cambodian "killing fields" and the Tiananmen Square massacre in China.

But the bill won the support of the other seven African-American senators, several of whom said they identified with the plight of the Irish in the 19th century.

"Different groups shouldn't have to beg to be in the history of this country," said Sen. Clarence W. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat.

Pub Date: 1/30/98

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