Lawmakers handling hot potato

January 30, 1998


Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS - Few people would argue against the historical significance of the Irish potato famine, but should teaching it in Maryland schools be mandated by law?

Most of the members of the state Senate think so, and voted 26-18 Thursday to tentatively approve legislation that would require the state's school districts to teach students about the famine.

"I was voting for this bill to send a message," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

That message, according to Munson and several other lawmakers, was that important pieces of American history are being dropped from textbooks and classrooms.


Munson said it was the memory of 19th-century Washington County lawmaker and civil rights champion Thomas Kennedy that inspired him to vote for the bill.

Kennedy, a native of Scotland, was responsible for legislation in the House of Delegates in 1826 that removed from the state constitution a requirement that office holders in Maryland swear an oath to Christianity. That requirement had barred people of Jewish faith from participating in elected government.

"He dedicated his whole life to giving Jews civil rights," Munson said.

A plaque in the State House honoring Kennedy notes his "eight-year struggle in the Maryland General Assembly to win political rights for Jews in Maryland."

Kennedy's deeds are rarely mentioned today, Munson said.

Kennedy died in a cholera epidemic in 1832, a decade before the great potato famine would ravage Ireland and cause the death of about 1 million of the nation's 8 million people.

It has importance in American history because more than a million Irish people emigrated to the United States.

Edward Koogle, supervisor of social studies for the Washington County Board of Education, said county students can learn about the potato famine during discussions of immigration in middle school and high school history classes.

But the extent of the lessons probably isn't as detailed at the requirements under the proposed legislation, he added.

Koogle said he did not know if schools teach about Kennedy. If they do, it would be in the elementary grades, he said.

Supporters of the potato famine legislation said it will help close some of the gaps in the history books.

"All the bill is saying is, if it's American history, teach it," said Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore City.

Opponents of the legislation said they recognized the importance of the potato famine, but believe it is not the legislature's job to dictate to school boards and teachers what should and should not be taught in classrooms. That decision should be left to educators, they said.

"We're not supposed to be mandating curriculum," said Sen. John W. Derr, R-Frederick/Washington, who voted against the bill.

Derr and others said requiring the potato famine be taught could result in lawmakers being asked to mandate a variety of historical classes from various ethnic viewpoints.

"Who am I to say your issue isn't as important as mine?" said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, D-Howard.

The Senate is expected to give final approval to the measure on Monday. But Munson and other lawmakers said the debate might become moot once the issue reaches the House of Delegates, where the road to passage is expected to be bumpier.

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