Tuesday, March 22, 2011

teaching with the Irish

After my St. Patrick's day post, I was thinking about how frequently I use Irish examples in my classes.

In my Cultural Anthropology class, I talk about Irish immigration to the U.S. during the last half of the 19th century. I show students some contemporary images that portrayed the Irish as inferior (like these), and I read quotes from leaders of American society that portray this influx of new people as the end of American civilization.

First, we talk about parallels between the portrayal of immigration in the 19th century, and the portrayal of immigration in the 21st (and why). Then, we talk about how the Irish were seen as a separate race, with significant physical differences from the Anglo-Saxons who dominated U.S. culture at the time. I show them that the Irish were considered intellectually unsuited to most professional pursuits, but they were thought to be naturally talented athletes and entertainers. Many vaudeville acts were Irish, and the Irish dominated certain competitive sports, like boxing (hence Notre Dame's Fighting Irish mascot, with his hands raised for a match.) I help my students make the connection between these ideas about the Irish, and similar ideas about other ethnic groups, and how the lack of access to higher education and wealth can create this self-fulfilling stereotype.

At the end, I return to the quotes that predicted an end to U.S. culture if we allow the Irish to immigrate in such large numbers. The major point I make to my students is that, although these quotes sound ridiculous to us, the writers were right. That is to say,if we could disinter those distinguished gentlemen and show them the modern U.S., they would be appalled by some of the changes that have occurred, largely as a result of Irish immigration. Catholicism is the largest single denomination in the country. Irish ancestry is more common than any other, except German. We celebrate St. Patrick's day, for heaven's sake! From the perspective of the Victorian WASP, U.S. culture did "degenerate". We don't see it that way, though, because we're the decedents of those immigrants, and we know that the changes that occurred in this country have led to the powerful, rich, and free nation that we know and love.

I end the lecture by predicting that our grandchild will have similar attitudes toward today's immigrants. They'll read our vitriolic rants about immigration, and say "hey, they were crazy back then." Then, they'll head out to celebrate Chinese New Year with the traditional mariachi band.

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