Arts Integration

The Implications of Hamilton for High School Teaching

If you haven’t heard about the musical Hamilton, where have you been? The bio-musical about Alexander Hamilton with Hispanic and black actors playing the founding fathers has become an iconic piece of theater, with tickets at astronomical prices. Having excited critics and audiences with its hip-hop exploration of America’s revolutionary era, the show has now been shared with high school students all across the country.

Thanks to the producer Jefferey Seller, the director Lin-Manuel Miranda, EduHam, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Gilder Lehrmann Institute of American Education, tens of thousands of high school students in New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Chicago are having the opportunity to see the show. The showings have also often featured interaction with cast members. The internet is filled with responses from these kids because many are being deeply affected by the experience. A number of teachers have pointed out that many of them have never been to a live theater performance before.

Beau Monton, a student from San Francisco’s George Washington High, writes that Hamilton “is all about diversity. … It’s kind of like overcoming a lot of different things: oppression, privilege. … When I think about this play, I think of it as a really big inspiration.” Tatiana Hernandez, a student at Mt. Eden High in Hayward, California, writes: "I've always loved musicals…since I was a little girl. Hamilton affected me a little differently, however. It reminded me that we glorify the founding fathers. Fantasizing how wise they must have been and making ourselves feel small in comparison. In actuality, they were normal people, with normal feelings, and normal lives. The only difference between them and us is they were put in a special position to create something huge. We are just living in it. But, as in true physical and emotional form, we are equal to them."

Each of these responses are representative of the responses of many kids, suggesting the potential for using this experience as a lead-in to further exploration of Hamilton and the other founding fathers in Social Studies classes, and also encouraging kids to become more involved in theater. The Gilder Lehrman program includes a “Hamilton Student Performance and Study Guide” and an online Hamilton portal that provides students with a creative platform for developing and producing their own original performances — be it poetry, rap, musical theater, or any other facet of performance they can think of. 

And as Lin-Manuel Miranda notes: “We’re not going to get 1,300 musical theater writers … They’re not all going to go into theater.…. But, I do believe firmly that approaching history in this way (also) forces you to reckon with what you’re going to do with your life. And I think it forces you to confront what it is to live a life of meaning… whether that’s theater or … architecture or …or medicine or biology.”

Asked how, as a person of color, the show had changed his relationship to U.S. history, Joshua Henry, who played Aaron Burr in the San Francisco cast, responded, “What I love about being a person of color in this show is that it’s representing how no matter where you’re from, no matter what you look like, no matter what color your skin, you can have a huge impact.” Students studying History also need to learn to be able to examine multiple perspectives on the same historical events and persons, so providing them with articles that present differing perspectives is critical.

Hamilton provides an excellent opportunity because of the motivation created by seeing the play. Minimally, History teachers planning to use Hamilton for teaching purposes should also be familiar with the great biography that inspired the show, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, and the outstanding illustrated book that includes the libretto and excellent commentary by the director, Hamilton the Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter. 

It would also be interesting to have students explore the question of whether it is legitimate for theater and film directors to take liberties with history. Although there are many sources available on the internet, these two struck me as particularly valuable. Each of them look at the differences between what took place and how these actions were presented in the play:

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2016/04/a_hamilton_critic_on_why_the_musical_isn_t_so_revolutionary.html

https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-historical-inaccuracies-in-Hamilton-the-Broadway-musical

While there are many possibilities for learning experiences for students, one I’d recommend is debating, although a panel discussion is another less dramatic option. One example would be a debate of the topic:

Resolved: Aaron Burr Was a Villain.

Another could be...

Resolved: Hamilton’s Vision for America Was Better for the Country Than That of Jefferson.

Another that I’d consider using would be...

Resolved: Plays and Films Based on Historical Events Should Be Totally Faithful to the Actual Events.

Finally, the experience with the show should provide a stimulus for each of the schools to strengthen their theater programs. Many schools do not even offer an elective in theater, and we know how much most schools struggle to support their arts programs.

Iman Khan, a senior at Mt. Eden High may have summarized it all best: “This musical was one that my friends and I had been enjoying for the past year. We sang and danced to it together …(and) knew the lyrics like the back of our hands. When we were informed we’d be seeing the show, we screamed out of excitement …The show holds such a special place in our hearts! Seeing it was life-changing. The cast’s passion, diversity, and love for each other was inspiring and what I hope our society will one day resemble. When I looked at the stage, I didn't see actors and fancy sets; I saw the future. This production reassured me that the future lies within the arts and that their role is crucial to our society. Hamilton gave me a newfound love and respect for my passion for theater… and brought me closer to those who I share that passion with. I'm beyond thankful for this unforgettable experience! "

From Iman’s mouth to the ears of educators and politicians; every school should embrace the arts, very much including theater.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.