Hamilton: Revolutionary Pedagogy

A few summers back, the dewy green sparkling in the Seattle sunshine, I was at a Fourth of July Festival in a local park where vendors were set up to let kids participate in activities and earn prizes. One, I remember vividly. A lady at one of the tents quizzed me for a prize: “Who is on the one-dollar bill?” To her appall, I had no idea. (I later found out it was George Washington.)

Having lived in Japan for my whole life, I never used the dollar bill, or any American currency for that matter. All I knew of America was my relatives, insanely wide highways, Disneyland, and ginormous portions of Coca-Cola. I was oblivious to American history as a whole until 8th grade, when I learned minimally about the American Revolution. Unsurprisingly, I knew little about Alexander Hamilton until a little while ago.

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend the Broadway performance of this revolutionary show. In just two hours, I found myself engrossed in the most compelling, exciting, heartbreaking, and heartwarming American history lesson of my life composed by ingenious lyricist, Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’ve had compelling classes in the past, but this was simply incomparable. Behind the highly acclaimed songs, dances, and characters, lay the framework for a revolutionary approach to teaching.

Historical figures are all too often illustrated as a one-sided “good” or “bad” guy, when in reality, there is so much more. Hamilton’s uniqueness—apart from its unprecedented combination of American history and hip-hop on a Broadway stage—may derive from its portrayal of the characters’ strengths and flaws. Aaron Burr is often illustrated as the antagonist, but this show reveals his initial friendship with Hamilton, his drive for power, and his endless love for his daughter. By highlighting the multifaceted nature of the figures, the seemingly unrelatable story of the Founding Fathers becomes relatable, intimate, and memorable. The musical offers an alternative to drilling in information trapped in the stale, size-9 sentences of a textbook; it brings the cold statues of history to life.

Hamilton was undoubtedly one of my most riveting educational experiences that catalyzed further inquiry into the subject. Sunk in the plush seat of the Richard Rogers Theater, enthralled by the magnificent tale of the rise and fall of Hamilton, I learned more about American history than any lecture could attempt to teach. The most unbelievable part? I didn’t even realize that the memorization was happening.

Research shows that people absorb information better when they have more fun, in contrast to the usual, stress-driven nature of high school. Dr. Judy Willis asserts, “When students are engaged and motivated and feel minimal stress, … they achieve higher levels of cognition, make connections, and experience ‘aha’ moments.” This is true for adults as well—this paper found that “experiencing positive emotions such as fun and enjoyment link with successful learning and self-perception of increased well-being” for adults. It’s no wonder that Hamilton audiences emerge from the show more literate on the history of the United States.

The discoveries, however, went well beyond the theater. Upon returning to Japan, I’ve read the Federalist Papers out of pure interest, and researched on what else happened to Hamilton’s family (Hamilton’s daughter, Angelica Hamilton, became mentally distressed by the death of Philip to the point where she could not even recognize her own family members, and was never the same again—a tragedy of its own). Listening to the soundtrack on repeat has ingrained facts in my head: Thomas Jefferson began the two-party system, Eliza Schuyler founded New York City’s first private orphanage, Alexander created the New York Post, Alexander and Philip were shot around the same spot. I had no real reason to seek this information. I was simply curious and wanted to quench my thirst for knowledge.

The best education, in my mind, is so enjoyable that it inspires people to want to learn more—exactly what Hamilton did to me. In an era where students take classes purely to look more attractive in college admissions (and as a result, have information they aren’t even interested in is shoved down their throats to score well on a test), sparking genuine interest in learning has never been more important.

Hamilton has completely altered my perspective on education and fun. Blinded by my experiences at school, it seemed to me that these two were mutually exclusive; now, I’ve come to realize that there’s no reason for learning to not be enjoyable, engaging, and curiosity-sparking. There needs to be a fundamental shift in how we approach education, because we can’t expect students to do well and have fun if the content and method they are being taught with doesn’t excite them.

Had I watched this musical several years prior, I might have been able to answer the lady’s question about the 1 dollar bill… and maybe even teach her a thing or two about the man on the 10 dollar bill as well.

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