Go ahead: Have a Guinness, wear a bit of green, and put on the Chieftains, but let's honor the Irish starving peasants by commemorating Ireland's Holocaust and learning the truth about it. Students need to know the economic and social forces that starved and uprooted over a million Irish -- and that are starving and uprooting people today.
St. Patrick's Day is celebrated on March 17, the saint's religious feast day and the anniversary of his death in the fifth century. The Irish have observed this day as a religious holiday for over 1,000 years. At present, for St.Patrick's Day, North Americans, Irish and Non-Irish go out to pub and drink as much as humanly possible and have a jolly good time.
"Wear green on St. Patrick's Day or get pinched" Irish folk memory refers to the Famine dead as having "mouths stained green" - because there last meal was often grass.
Sadly, today's high school textbooks continue to largely ignore the famine, despite the fact that it was responsible for unimaginable suffering and the deaths of more than a million Irish peasants, and that it triggered the greatest wave of Irish immigration in U.S. history. Nor do textbooks make any attempt to help students link famines past and present.
Yet there is no shortage of material that can bring these dramatic events to life in the classroom. Sinead O'Connor's haunting rendition of "Skibbereen" includes the verse:
... Oh it's well I do remember, that bleak
The landlord and the sheriff came, to drive
Us all away
They set my roof on fire, with their cursed
And that's another reason why I left old
By contrast, most texts call the famine a "horrible disaster," as if it were a natural calamity like an earthquake. And in an awful single paragraph, Houghton Mifflin's The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People blames the "ravages of famine" simply on "a blight," and the only contemporaneous quote comes, inappropriately, from a landlord, who describes the surviving tenants as "famished and ghastly skeletons." Uniformly, social studies textbooks fail to allow the Irish to speak for themselves, to narrate their own horror.
These timid slivers of knowledge not only deprive students of rich lessons in history -- they exemplify much of what is wrong with today's curricular reliance on corporate-produced textbooks.
First, does anyone really think that students will remember anything from the books' dull and lifeless paragraphs? Today's textbooks contain no stories of actual people. We meet no one, learn nothing of anyone's life, encounter no injustice, no resistance. This is a curriculum bound for boredom. Consequently, students are unlikely to seek to learn more about events so emptied of drama, emotion, and humanity.
Nor do these texts raise any critical questions for students to consider. For example, it's important for students to learn that the crop failure in Ireland affected only the potato -- during the worst famine years, other food production was robust. Michael Pollan notes in The Botany of Desire, "Ireland's was surely the biggest experiment in monoculture ever attempted and surely the most convincing proof of its folly." But if only this one variety of potato, the Lumper, failed, and other crops thrived, why did people starve?
Thomas Gallagher points out in Paddy's Lament, that during the first winter of famine, 1846-47, as perhaps 400,000 Irish peasants starved, landlords exported 17 million pounds sterling worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs, and poultry -- food that could have prevented those deaths. Throughout the famine, as Gallagher notes, there was an abundance of food produced in Ireland, yet the landlords exported it to markets abroad.
The school curriculum could and should ask students to reflect on the contradiction of starvation amidst plenty, on the ethics of food exports amidst famine. And it should ask why these patterns persist into our own time.
More than a century and a half after the "Great Famine," we live with similar, perhaps even more glaring contradictions. Today, when we produce more food than ever before, more than 100.000 starve to death every day while millions, especially in the “first world,” are overweight.
The rot at the core of the modern food system is a curricular journey that our students should also be on -- reflecting on patterns of poverty, power, and inequality that stretch from 19th-century Ireland to 21st-century Africa, India, America… Students should explore what happens when food and land are regarded purely as commodities in a global system of profit.
But today's corporate textbook-producers are no more interested in feeding student curiosity about this inequality than were British landlords interested in feeding Irish peasants. Take Pearson, the global publishing giant. At its website, the corporation announces (redundantly) that "we measure our progress against three key measures: earnings, cash and return on invested capital." The Pearson empire had 2011 worldwide sales of more than $9 billion -- that's nine thousand million dollars, as I might tell my students. Multinationals like Pearson have no interest in promoting critical thinking about an economic system whose profit-first premises they embrace with gusto.
Students should investigate who or what was responsible for the famine. The British landlords, who demanded rent from the starving poor and exported other food crops? The British government, which allowed these food exports and offered scant aid to Irish peasants? The Anglican Church, which failed to denounce selfish landlords or to act on behalf of the poor? A system of distribution, which sacrificed Irish peasants to the logic of colonialism and the capitalist market?
These are rich and troubling ethical questions. They are exactly the kind of issues that fire students to life and allow them to see that history is not simply a chronology of dead facts stretching through time.
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