What I Hope Students (and Education Policymakers) will see in Hamilton
The musical Hamilton tells the captivating story of the first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, and our nation’s founding through songs and hip-hop soliloquys; but from my perspective, the play does much more. It reminds us all of the responsibility we have, as educators, policymakers, community members, and parents, to ensure our children can access a quality education, rich with the arts, sciences, and history — because well-rounded learning experiences provide students with the tools to both view and engage in our society, and even change it for the better.
As a former social studies teacher, I imagined how my former students would react to Hamilton’s lyrical depiction of the drafting of President George Washington’s farewell address and the significance of the new nation’s first transition of executive leadership. I could envision the classroom conversation that would have been sparked by a tense exchange between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton about the relationship between slavery and the differing economic interests of Virginia and New York. Scenes like these would have engendered rich discussion about the meaning of democracy and about current political developments in the United States and around the world.
I’m proud to see that the New York City Department of Education and Rockefeller Foundation have partnered to help 20,000 local public school students in the city to experience the play — and, hopefully, gain an even greater appreciation for the arts and American history. Most of all, as a father, I’m grateful that my daughters and I — and every student who listens to the Grammy-winning album or sees the play — will be able to discuss “a story about America then, told by America now,” borrowing an expression from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s creator. Indeed, learning about our past can prepare us to be more thoughtful participants in our present and in our future.
It’s perhaps more critical today than ever to ensure all students receive an education that includes the arts, culture, literature, math, sciences, and social studies — and that challenges them to solve problems and think critically. To succeed in an increasingly connected global economy, our students need unprecedented knowledge, skills, and creativity. They also need empathy, compassion, and resilience.
In many ways, the heart of Alexander Hamilton’s story in the history books and on Broadway is about overcoming adversity. Hamilton lost both parents at an early age, survived a catastrophic hurricane, and immigrated from the Caribbean to New York to pursue his education (including a degree at Kings College, now Columbia University). Eventually, he helped the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) win the American Revolution and became our first Treasury Secretary.
We’ve come a long way from the quills and ink of that era, but the power of the show is that it makes Hamilton’s successes and failures, determination to put his stamp on the world, and vision for a better country relatable and relevant today. I hope students who see the play also come away with an important life lesson: through hard work, perseverance, and the opportunities afforded through a great education, you, too, can accomplish incredible things.
And it’s here where there’s special power in the humanities, including language, literature, social studies, philosophy, and the arts. They enlighten and unite us. They help us understand and celebrate our differences, cultivate a sense of our common humanity, and do better for ourselves and future generations by learning from our past.
But we know that, across the country, there are large disparities in how much time schools dedicate to social studies, civic education, and the arts. How can we expect a student to make the next Hamilton or to become the next Kara Walker, Natalia Anciso, or Kehinde Wiley if she’s never been inside a theater, analyzed a painting, or had the chance to deeply study American history?
The good news is that we can encourage schools, community centers, museums, afterschool programs, and others to collaborate to offer rich learning opportunities to our children. We can continue our efforts to ensure equitable access to resources and supports for our teachers and our schools. And, since we know a well-rounded education is not compartmentalized, we can provide profound benefits to students by incorporating the study of arts, history, and sciences even as we teach other subjects.
The new Every Student Succeeds Act gives states the opportunity to broaden their definition of educational quality, to acknowledge that strong literacy and numeracy are necessary but not sufficient for an excellent education, and to embrace the importance of social studies, the arts, science, and learning a second language. This represents a welcome change from the No Child Left Behind Act, under which many schools and districts focused so intensely on instruction in math and reading that other subjects were ignored or even eliminated. That was the wrong approach. We know that students of the arts, social studies, and science gain critical skills in those subjects for success in college, careers, and civic participation and simultaneously do better in English language arts and math.
Serving at the U.S. Department of Education, I’ve had the opportunity to visit classrooms across the country. Wherever I go, the schools where students are most engaged — and ultimately most successful — are those where young people have the opportunity to apply their learning and express their creativity, from testing hypotheses in science, to using their coding skills to create new applications, to designing service projects in their local communities, to performing Shakespeare and choreographing modern dance performances.
As educators, we know that the arts can draw students in and inspire them to find themselves and their authentic voices. And while not every student will have the chance to see the President’s Cabinet perform a rap battle (as is the case in Hamilton, but, which, from what I can tell, has not happened during this Administration), if we do our part, we can help all students realize their potential. To adapt a phrase from one of the songs Hamilton sings, “There’s a million things [they] haven’t done… but just you wait.”