I’m hurrying to write this post before it becomes a cliche to argue for teaching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton in schools. I might be too late already — a recent article in Education World titled “Broadway Musical ‘Hamilton’ Revitalizes Civic Education” describes the impact that the play has begun to have on New York City kids studying civics and American history.
In Hamilton, Miranda holds a mirror up to America past and present, revealing the contradictions within us — we are a country founded on ideals of freedom during the height of slavery; we are a country of immigrants that is suspicious of immigrants. But as spectacular as the Broadway show is, with its stereotype-defying cast and ear-worm inducing songs, the text that Miranda wrote — full of poetry, unique phrasing, and clever rhyme — is even more so. Wealthy daughters go into the city against their father’s wishes to find not a husband but “a mind at work.” The orphaned Alexander Hamilton knows that he only has one “shot” to make it in what will be America, and he’s determined not to throw that shot away. (Visit Genius to read more of Miranda’s lyrics as well as explanations of the allusions that ripple through them.)
Students need to read and discuss the book of this play — first and foremost because they will love it. Contemporary cadences from hip-hop, rap, and spoken word poetry infuse American history with new life, making seemingly dry topics lush and interesting. Beyond its likability, though, the messages in Hamilton are critical to both school and life: messages about absolute power corrupting absolutely (exemplified in King George’s strangely charming despotism), the American dream (Hamilton’s rags to riches story), the historical anomaly of a powerful leader stepping aside (Washington’s support for his own limited tenure in office), and the historical reality of a country founded simultaneously on democratic ideals and slavery (embodied in a brilliant, privileged Jefferson).
As an English teacher, I can easily see this text in students’ hands during a survey of American literature. The only question is where to place it in the syllabus — at the beginning or the end?
As a Director of Studies looking across disciplines, I can see this work engaging students in other classrooms as well — American History, Theater Workshop, Government and Politics, and, to be sure, Economics, since part of Hamilton’s legacy and a critical debate explored during the play is the establishment of a federal treasury.
Educators are always seeking out the perfect text or tool to brighten the light in their students’ eyes. This is a book that can and will do that. Miranda has done a service for teachers and students alike by writing such a relevant and engaging work.