It does not sound like a familiar world, more like a fantasy or a land far away. A world where a sitting United States Vice President rows across the Hudson River to New Jersey and murders one of our founding fathers and the founder of the National Bank? That could not really have happened. And then, to not be tried and/or convicted for this crime? A world where the capital of the United States was almost New York City, not Washington, D.C.? Unreal! An early America portrayed not as formal and rigid, but rather set to hip hop beats, featuring scandals galore, torrid affairs, and blackmail? A stage where our founding fathers, names we’ve known since 5th grade civics class, not only do not get along, but where they ruthlessly at times try to one up and betray each other. And yet, it is being portrayed, to standing ovations each night, in New York, Chicago and California. It’s making its way across the Atlantic, to London’s famed West End. And, if your morning and evening commute is anything like mine when my daughter is in the car, it’s playing out of your car stereo! Hamilton, the show that has America rapping instead of humming along, is no doubt a stage sensation!
Over fifteen years ago, when I was just starting out as an English teacher, I often joined forces with two of my colleagues, both just starting on their paths as History teachers, to make the world of American History and American Literature “come alive” for students. How hard we worked to really capture “Paul Revere’s Ride” or Jefferson’s composing the Declaration of Independence, or Benedict Arnold’s betrayal of the country, or Lincoln’s assassination. We sought to make history really engaging; not just facts on a page, but the life story of people deemed important enough to earn a place in the massive textbooks placed before students. We worked tirelessly to connect the men and women of American history with the literature composed to honor, or even at times, mock them. Each of us would have had a field day with Hamilton! had it been around in those days. I am sure we, as teachers in other schools are doing right now, would have worked to put a Hamilton elective on the listing of classes; because anything that students get this excited about, is worth teaching about!
Have I seen the musical? Sadly, not yet. (Anyone think if I tweet this blog to Lin Manuel – Miranda he will gift me with a ticket? ) Was I skeptical when the soundtrack was recommended to me by some of my current students? Of course; a rap musical about the founding fathers? Who wouldn’t hesitate just a bit? But, as he has his leading character state in the play, Miranda truly reached his goal of “creating something that’s gonna outlive me!” It has, to again steal his words created a “world turned upside down!” This musical is inspiring students, here at Saint Dominic, where Hamilton pins adorn blazers and Hamilton t-shirts are proudly on display during tag days, as well as students across the country to become not just interested in, but connected to history. The men depicted in the musical, figures from a distant past, have been brought to life in a way students can understand and relate to; in ways that they can connect to their own lives.
And, isn’t that what education is all about, at its core. For young people, not just to memorize dates, places, formulas, stanzas of poetry, but to have a “spark fanned into a flame” and grab their interest so they want to go beyond what is presented in the classroom and learn all they can about a subject? This current Hamilton craze does have many benefits; it’s inspired a love of Broadway in those who might not be interested. It’s so popular that New Jersey Monthly Magazine has published a list of New Jersey historical sites connected to Alexander Hamilton that parents can take their elementary aged children to visit to learn more about history. It encourages students to look further than the chapter in their history textbook dedicated to “The Founding of America” or “Hamilton Establishes the First National Bank” and read more; maybe online, maybe via blogs, but to seek out more information; to WANT to know more about this subject.
Today, and for the near future, the popular subject may be the life of Alexander Hamilton. But, once that spark is lit, it will continue to burn brightly for other topics, other people, other ideas that capture our children’s interest in similar ways, and suddenly a student transforms into a SCHOLAR, which is the best thing any one of us can be. And, if the subject of today is Hamilton, well, it’s a wonderful subject to capture the minds and hearts of our youth. At a minimum, Miranda’s epic musical has created a generation of American students who will never mistakenly list Alexander Hamilton as one of our presidents when asked to name United States Presidents. (When I started teaching, his name appeared on that type of list often!) And, at its’ best, Hamilton! has taught all these young scholars to ponder what a shame it is that his name is not included on that most revered list.