Year-after-year at my family’s secular Seder, we follow the Jewish custom of retelling the ancient story of the exodus from slavery in Egypt. Because we are not religious, our tale is that of the struggles of many different peoples’ for freedom from bondage and oppression at their own hands, rather than by deliverance by God.
Our Haggadah – the Passover Seder text – implores us “that each year we must regard the exodus story as if we ourselves has just been released from slavery… that as we celebrate our freedom, we must also commit to join the fight against injustice wherever it exists today.” It beseeches us to remember that, “As long as one person is oppressed no one is free.” So, we sing civil rights anthems along with the traditional Passover song, Dayenu. We also reference the struggle of Palestinians for freedom and to a rightful homeland.
We retell the story to remember, not as an angry, defensive or exclusionary “never forget” ritual, but instead to forge and maintain identity with all who are oppressed, and to keep those memories alive and current. We recall not for the sake of nostalgia, but to guide behavior today.
Overall, Americans lack such retelling rituals of our history. As a result, too many have forgotten how our freedoms were won, so much so that a lot of voters appear willing to give up on the foundational principles of our democracy. Our freedom story began long before the Declaration of Independence and continues to this day. We need more retellings that evoke personal identification with the values of freedom and justice as well as the struggles through which they were achieved. We need more retellings that push back against the current rise and celebration of self-regarding, divisive tribalism.
Rituals matter. For example, at a recent city council meeting that I attended in my home town of Beacon, NY, we were called upon to stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and for a moment of silence in memory of soldiers who died in defense of freedom. What if we were also asked recall those who died on the battle lines to win voting and worker rights? That would evoke a broader message of citizen responsibility.
Progressive critics argue (count myself among them) that Donald Trump and his supporters are undermining cherished constitutional freedoms of the press and speech; that founding principles of separation of church and state are under attack; that justice-enhancing laws and programs wrought through labor, civil rights, women’s, environmental, marriage equality, and LGBTQ struggles are at grave risk.
These counter arguments to the Republican agenda are necessary, but insufficient because they rest on truths and values that appear to be no longer self-evident or universally shared. The attacks on democracy and justice have been self-evident for some time. Nonetheless, enough Americans responded with a collective shrug to facilitate a surprising Electoral College win for Donald Trump and to maintain support among a sizable, if shrinking, minority. When Trump’s critics invoke the specter of dictatorship or fascism, his supporters– some out of fear, some out of hatred of others and some out of self-serving avarice– respond with an “I’ll take that risk” shrug.
As a society, we have failed to follow what I’ll call the Passover Principle of identification generating retelling. Virtually everyone in the diverse crazy-quilt fabric that is the US has a justice and freedom story to tell. Some narratives are “they tried to defeat us, but we prevailed” legends with persistent resentment as the result. However, tales can also highlight the commonality of struggles. They can recall the courage of the Underground Railroad supporters aiding escaped slaves, of the French Resistance to fascism, or of civil rights workers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Then stories can unite and rekindle the spirit of personal and collective responsibility.
Stories are powerful, evoking persistent historical loves or hatreds. Whether and how history is recounted and interpreted is not neutral. First, retelling must be truthful. To do so, it must acknowledge multiple perspectives. For example, the scientific and engineering advances from industrialization, computers and information technologies have enhanced human wellbeing as they also brought suffering, exploitation and dislocation. History is too often written from the perspective of the victors, ignoring the plight of its victims. Second, it must surface human agency. What happened in the past was not the result of inevitable forces, but rather moral and strategic choices. What leaders– democrats and dictators alike– accomplished- was the result of either the struggles or acquiescence of ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary) people.
The story of winning expanded freedoms and justice in the United States has not been one of continuous progress, but instead of hard-fought, contested battles. At times we have taken two steps forward and one step back. At other times it has been the reverse. Our history has been one in which at times politicians and citizens made both moral and reasoned choices and in other instances, immoral irrational choices. The tale of those choices and taking sides is important to tell and remember, for it defines our values, how we regard ourselves and others, and whether or not freedom and justice will expand or be extinguished.
The Passover Principle is the responsibility of anyone who values freedom and justice for all. If stories are framed intentionally and not just out of unexamined habit, they can be catalysts for change. Retelling may fall to parents, grandparents and caregivers. When young people hear about proposals to restrict Mexicans from entry into the US, are they told of efforts to restrict Asian and Southern Europeans? It also falls to religious leaders who are in a position to exert moral leadership. When congregants hear about efforts to bar entry of Muslims, do clergy give sermons recalling efforts to keep out Catholics and Jews? Similarly, it falls to educators. When students learn about westward expansion of the United States, do they learn about stealing land from and exterminating Native Americans? When they learn about Rosa Parks, do they just hear a story of her individual courage or of her resistance training at the Highlander Folk School?
The point of retelling is not simply memory. How we choose to remember reflects the values we cherish, who we want to be, and the future we want to make.
Arthur H. Camins is a lifelong educator. Most recently, he was the director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts, and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone.
His writings are collected at www.arthurcamins.com
Follow Arthur on Twitter: @arthurcamins