The Broadway musical gives all educators and parents significant and timely material for male students.
At last night’s Grammy’s award show, the cast of Hamilton gave fans nationwide a glimpse of the musical, up close and personal. Performing the opening number via satellite, the cast of Broadway’s runaway hit – based on the life and times of Alexander Hamilton – left the live audience screaming on their feet.
As a mega-fan of the music (I will see you one day, Hamilton), I’ve often thought of ways it could be used in the classroom. Here are a small handful of possibilities for teaching 21st century male students:
- America is an idea, and it’s for everyone.
One of the more radical choices in the history of theatre has to be Lin-Manuel Miranda’s decision to cast Hamilton with actors who are almost exclusively from ethnic minorities. Miranda himself is of Puerto Rican descent. This is obviously not historically accurate for the real Alexander, nor were George Washington or Aaron Burr black, as they are in the Broadway iteration.
The message sent is simple: these men fought for an idea of equality, an idea of freedom, an idea of liberty. As such, their race is (in this respect) irrelevant.
America is not a race; it is an idea. And ideas are for everyone.
The power of such a visual affirmation of all Americans cannot be overstated. Especially for young, minority male students, seeing a George Washington or an Alexander Hamilton who looks like them is empowering. And given the state of education in too many minority-majority schools, opportunities for empowerment cannot come fast enough.
- It is “manly” to show restraint
In both acts, Hamilton wants to fight in the war, he wants to fight for George Washington’s reputation, he wants to fight for his honor. The young man wants to fight for just about anything.
One of the best lines comes from George Washington, as he tells Hamilton, “Fighting is easy; living is harder.” By far the most venerated character in the musical, Washington’s judgment is proven correct. As the fearless general, he nevertheless recognizes that fighting is a final option, appropriate only if every other avenue has been exhausted.
- You can get a “lot farther by working a lot harder.”
Young men are often peddled a certain myth that goes like this: Natural talent and ability are all you need. Whether on the sporting field, in the classroom, or in the boardroom, attitude and inborn gifts win the day.
So if you’ve got ‘em, flaunt ‘em. And if you don’t, resign yourself to mediocrity.
The message of Hamilton is that other traits – character traits – have more impact on success than any other factor. Loyalty, bravery, diligence, discipline, integrity (or a lack of it) – the characters of Hamilton succeed or fail on their possession of these qualities.
It’s a message young women are often taught. To expect adversity. To rely not on luck or natural talents, but on hard work and rising above the shallow level of worldly and workplace politics.
What a wonder, to see the same uplifting vision offered to young men.
- You should stand up for what you believe in.
The two central characters – Hamilton and Burr – both possess one fatal character flaw. In Hamilton, it is an excess of feisty arrogance, the self-assurance to assert himself and ride his ambition as high as he possibly can.
Aaron Burr is rather the opposite in his approach, but the same in underlying motivation. Wanting to protect his family’s reputation, Burr is calculating, overly discreet, and unable to stand up for his convictions. He is always weighing the risks, and then choosing the most favorable option.
Both men are undone by these shortcomings, but one is left with a true admiration of Hamilton. Regardless of the consequences, Hamilton spoke out for what he believed. This included the abolition of slavery, a view that put him at odds with many of his fellow countrymen (notably Thomas Jefferson, and to a certain extent, Washington himself).
You respect Hamilton for that, and you respect him for the passion that drove his short and extraordinary life.
But Burr walks off the stage with no such admiration. Overly cautious, uncommitted to ideals, Burr is the consummate politician.
Photo: Flickr/Eli Christman