I’ve been thinking about Hamilton lately.
By this time, you’ve probably heard at least something about the historical hip-hop sensation that has taken Broadway by storm. The Bernie Sanders of musical theater, the Hamilton soundtrack is inflaming the passions of teens and young adults across the country. Your kids may have already corralled you to have a listen. On April 18, the musical was awarded a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
For those who are not familiar with the backstory: Hamilton is the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda. (It is fair to use genius next to his name, because Miranda did win a 2015 MacArthur “Genius” Award.) Born to Puerto Rican parents, Miranda grew up in New York City and attended Wesleyan University, where in his sophomore year he wrote the first draft of what would become another Broadway musical In the Heights. His second musical was inspired after reading Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton. The musical is set during the founding of the United States and tells the story of Hamilton’s life through song, with nearly all major characters played by people of color.
Among many accomplishments befit a man of varied talents and interests, Alexander Hamilton was the chief architect of our nation’s financial system. Even with his face on the $10 bill, Hamilton is probably best known as the founding father who died in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr.
It would be fair to say that the musical Hamilton can be understood on many levels.
What has me thinking about Hamilton isn’t my soft spot for musical theater (even though I get a lump in my throat at just the “duh duh” of the Les Miserables Prologue) but in what Hamilton the musical and the real life of Alexander Hamilton say about school and teachers.
Hamilton and education
Hamilton and other transformative works of art help us to see the world differently. They connect head, hands, and heart to our humanity. That a hip-hop tale about the founding fathers can connect people across generations is remarkable, and this is certainly the goal of a liberal arts education as well.
Hamilton’s real life journey from orphan to Founding Father resonates today not only because of Miranda’s gifts as a writer but because Hamilton’s life speaks to what we still want to believe about the American Dream.
As Aaron Burr raps in Hamilton:
”How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
Spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor,
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
Hamilton’s transformation begins when he receives a scholarship to attend school in the colonies, first a prep school in New Jersey and then later Kings College (later Columbia University) in New York City.
Miranda’s special artistic feat with Hamilton the musical has been to find a way to make Hamilton the man relatable, bringing themes forward that are still very relevant today. Setting it to rap was a risky move. Despite the technology, the research, and the rubrics, I do believe that there is a deep artistry in good teaching as well. Teachers create curriculum, foster relationships, and build communities. Like an artist, they dare to leave something of themselves in their work everyday. Miranda is clearly a teacher, and we can probably all think back on a teacher or who has worked similar magic in our own lives.
Hamilton and legacy
Art can influence well beyond its original intention. Who could have imagined Hamilton the musical would change the Treasury Department’s decision to replace Hamilton on the $10 bill and instead move them to bump Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill for Harriet Tubman. Who would imagine that 20,000 NYC students are getting to perform their own compositions for the cast of Hamilton as part of their US history curriculum?
Education today is obsessed with measuring impact. We evaluate by lesson, by unit, and by marking period — often feeling a need to quantify the value or value-added nature of our work.
Hamilton speaks to me not about this immediate impact but about the legacy of our work.
At the end of Miranda’s play, after Hamilton’s dies from his gunshot wounds, George Washington reminds the audience that we have no control on how we will be remembered. In the last number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” the characters reflect on Hamilton’s legacy.
“But when you are gone, who remembers your name?
Who keeps your flame?”
Miranda gives voice to Hamilton’s wife Eliza later, when she sings:
“And when my time is up
Have I done enough?”
How should we remember Hamilton the man? Should Hamilton the musical be measured by box office receipts alone? How does Hamilton the musical impact Hamilton the man’s legacy? And if you want to get real meta: What is the legacy of Ron Chernow, whose 2004 autobiography inspired Miranda to write Hamilton?
I think about these things when reflecting on the legacy of teachers, who have so many interactions — big and small — with so many different people on a daily basis. They work hard to understand their short-term impact on learning, but who knows what pebble will ignite a passion or inspire an insight that causes transformative ripples in the pond far away from that original source. There is no doubt that Alexander Hamilton could never imagined that his story would be told in such a way today.
Thank you to the artists in our classrooms and in our world for this inspiration.