I designed a trial role play to highlight the "crime" of famine and to encourage students to reflect on responsibility for that crime. The Irish Potato Famine lends itself to this teaching strategy, as students could plainly recognize the enormity of the famine, but the causes for the Irish suffering were not self-evident and required more consideration. [For examples of the trial role play format, see "The People v. Columbus, et al." in Rethinking Columbus; "The People v. Global Sweatshops" in Rethinking Globalization; and "The Case of Cultural Destruction," online at www.rethinkingschools.org/publication/rg/RGLak.shtml.] I wrote five detailed "indictments" (see box, page 46): British landlords, Irish tenant farmers, the Anglican Church, the British government, and "Political Economy" — the system of colonial capitalism.
This last role requires some explanation for students, because unlike the others, it is not a specific group of humans: It is a system of ownership, production, and distribution. But asking students to think systemically — reflecting on how the "rules of the game" reward and punish particular behaviors — is a key aim of my global studies curriculum. I don't want to dehumanize responsibility for injustice, but I want students to look beneath the surface to try to account for why people make the choices they do, and not to rely on glib explanations like "greed."
Each group was charged with the same crime, but for different reasons:
You are charged with the murder of one and a half million Irish peasants who died in the famine years of 1846 and 1847. These were needless deaths. Even without the potato, there was more than enough food produced in Ireland during those years to feed everyone in the country and still have plenty left over. The action — or lack of action — taken by your group led to untold misery. You are to blame.
Role Play Set Up
I used this role play with my 11th grade global studies classes at Franklin High School in Portland, Ore., as part of a broader unit on colonialism and the history of global inequality [see chapter two of Rethinking Globalization, "Legacy of Inequality: Colonial Roots"]. One reason I appended a short unit on British colonialism in Ireland to this unit is because I wanted my classes of largely working-class European-American students to see that colonial exploitation affected "white" people, too — although whites deserves quotation marks because the British constructed the Irish as a separate race from themselves [see Noel Ignatiev's book, How the Irish Became White].