Teaching about the Great Irish Famine and World History
IN MARCH 2001, an educational columnist for Newsday (New York) dismissed the New York State Great Irish Famine Curriculum Guide as another effort to promote ethnocentric history and the idea that the United States is little more than "a pastiche of different peoples, linked mostly by a Constitution and a system of interstate highways."(1) The columnist cited Chester Finn, Jr., a long-term opponent of multiculturalism, who insisted, "If we invite every faction in our society to insert their own best or worst episode from history, there will be no end of it."(2)
The New York Times had a different take on the curriculum guide.(3) According to the Times,If all goes according to plan, those Irish cliches (shamrocks and leprechauns) would be replaced by appreciation for `the amazing potato'; the famine-ravaged town of Skibbereen; Annie Moore, the first immigrant processed through Ellis Island; and the modern historical view that the potato famine of the 1840s resulted not just from a natural calamity but from Britain's policy of exporting other crops that could have kept its Irish colonial subjects alive.(4)
The article also credited the curriculum with drawing connections between events in Ireland in the 1840s and current issues, "including starvation in African nations, homelessness, immigration--as well as the history of other cultures."(5)
Purpose of the Curriculum
As the primary authors of the guide, we certainly liked The New York Times review better, but neither one captured what we tried to do, and believe we have done, with the curriculum. Our primary goals were to write Ireland into world history, not to create a separate course of study; to offer teachers standards-driven and document-based lesson plans, projects, and assessments; and to design a curriculum that addresses some of the big questions in world history.(6)
This curriculum uses the history of Ireland as a case study for understanding world history from the Columbian Exchange (when Europeans were introduced to the "amazing potato," among other new things, from the Western Hemisphere) through twentieth century human catastrophes. Major academic goals include encouraging students to think critically about historical events and primary sources, to draw conclusions on the basis of criteria and evidence, and to debate fundamental questions about the responsibilities of government and individuals in times of crisis.
In its final form, the guide will include 150 lessons for grades 4-12 that draw on science, literature, and the arts, as well as social studies and history. For the early grades, the curriculum guide centers on interdisciplinary projects. More than half of the lessons are intended for 7-12 social studies classes. The guide will be available in book form, as a CD-ROM, and on the World Wide Web. The lessons are divided into units that address four themes:
* What forces were shaping Ireland and the world before the Great Irish Famine (e.g., the Columbian Exchange, the Reformation in Europe, and colonialism)?
* Was the Great Irish Famine an act of nature?
* How did the Great Irish Famine...