Hofstra University Professor Maureen Murphy.
In some ways, 1996 seems so very long ago.

It was a pre-9/11 world, so America wasn’t waging a long-term war abroad, much less two or even three long-term wars. 

Also, in 1996, there were no iPods or iPads or Facebooks, and gasoline cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 a gallon.

That was also the year an array of Irish American educators and lawmakers got together and formed an impressive coalition which convinced state lawmakers that all students in New York State should learn about the Great Hunger, the
 Irish Famine which sent millions of desperate Irish across the globe in the 1840s. 

More on the Great Hunger in a moment.

These days, of course, we are waging bloody war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and something very much like it in Libya.  In 2011, we text, we tweet and, therefore, we are.

But there are important similarities between then and now.  President Bill Clinton suffered a big defeat in the 1994 congressional elections, when Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, took over both houses of Congress.

This led to fundamental questions about the role of government in the 1996 presidential campaign. Similar questions are being asked now, in the wake of the defeat Democrats suffered in the 2010 elections, and with the 2012 presidential race looming.

This, in and of itself, is a good thing.  We should never be afraid to question the status quo, especially when hard-earned taxpayer money is the focus of these questions.

New York Daily News columnist Bill Hammond took state lawmakers to task last week in a column entitled
“The Mandate Mess: Pols Dream Up Wasteful Programs, We Pay for Them.”

“Like the road to hell, the highway to New York State's broken government is paved with good intentions,”

Hammond wrote. “Year in and year out, well-meaning Albany politicians set out to make the world a better place.”

Hammond later cites “questionable mandates” such as those which “require schools to teach about the Irish

Potato Famine, calculate the body-mass index of each student and hire four separate contractors for major construction projects.”

Irish Americans swiftly responded, defending the value of learning about the Great Hunger.

“Bill Hammond doesn't think the Irish Potato Famine is worthwhile subject matter for the children of New York?” Damian McShane of the Bronx asked in the News’ vaunted “Voice of the People” section. 

“Perhaps (Hammond) should learn the history of that event, so he could better understand the lessons children can take from it. The evils of colonialism. Racism and discrimination in Europe. The first great wave of immigration to this country. 

“These topics seem pretty relevant to me, given what's going on in the world. But apparently they're not the kind of thing Hammond thinks our children should learn -- or the kind of information one needs to get a journalism degree.”

Hard to argue with that.  Of course, Hammond might say he was trying to make a larger point.  Hammond, after all, doesn’t doubt that the lawmakers have good intentions.

“What they generally fail to do…is think all the way through the real-world consequences of their social engineering. And they almost never follow up to see what actually happens,” he adds.

The basic question -- should state governments be in the business of deciding small-scale issues such as what should be taught in history classrooms?

What Hammond and many of today’s vociferous government critics fail to address is that state governments are often simply responding to grass roots movements. 

The Great Irish Famine curriculum was not implemented because a few lawmakers decided willy-nilly that they want to be nice to the Irish.  Hofstra University’s Maureen Murphy and many other like-minded educators built an impressive coalition and pressed lawmakers into action.

The lawmakers, thus, were representing the will of a vocal group of like-minded people.  That’s pretty much how Democracy works. 

It’s not to say the will of the people is always wise.  Sometimes it’s downright dumb.  Democracy, after all, is a messy business. 

As Winston Churchill (who knew a thing or two about butting heads with the Irish) noted, democracy is the worst form of government…except for all of the other ones.

(Contact “Sidewalks” at tomdeignan@earthlink.net or facebook.com/tomdeignan)