History: Center Stage
What can I say about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: The Musical that has not already been said? That it is perhaps the most innovative and creative product of American popular culture in decades? That it, and the monograph by Ron Chernow on which it is based, has made a major and long overdue contribution to the legacies of both Alexander and Eliza Hamilton? That the musical pays tribute to the Founding Fathers both by capturing the tenuous, gritty, and precarious nature of the American Revolution—and also by casting actors who reflect the diverse tapestry of American society today, a society for which they laid the groundwork? None of the above. For this historian, the gift of Hamilton is that this brilliant combination of hip-hop and traditional musical theater with its painstakingly researched, wittily packaged, and deftly delivered dialogue has made history—dare I say it—hip.
Rise up, fellow historians. This is our time. After years of being relegated to the back burner by No Child Left Behind, STEM initiatives, and coding classes, our day has arrived. I began to realize this as I waited in line to see the hottest show on Broadway this past December 2015. I was making small talk with the family in front of me who had come all the way from Texas to see the show. “You’re a history teacher!” the teenager in front of me gushed, and we proceeded to chat about the founders, the new AP U.S. history test, and how much she loved the musical score. I figured this was an anomaly until I sat down in my row, engaged in the requisite small talk, and found myself the belle of the ball—me, a humble historian, among the heads of state, movie stars, and who’s who of Manhattan society lucky enough to score tickets to this coveted production. Waiting in line for the ladies’ room during intermission, two teenage girls—history texts in hand— shared tidbits of information with each other: “Oh, my history teacher said that Hamilton delivered his own plan for SIX HOURS at the Constitutional Convention! Can you believe that?” Back at school, I was somewhat of a rock star by association. “Dr. Traymore! I heard you saw it over break! I’m obsessed with it! What did you think of it?” shouted one of my favorite students as she bounded over to me to get the scoop. Take that, STEM!
I’ve made my peace with the fact that Silicon Valley, where I presently live and teach, is not the best place for a practicing historian. As I drive to my private prep school campus watching a Tesla S deftly outmaneuver a Google driverless test car, as our local news media investigate Google mystery barges and salivate over drone footage of the space-ship like Apple campus shrouded in secrecy, it becomes obvious that this is a future-focused society, and to a some degree that is a reflection of the American mindset in general. So forgive me, but I can’t help but gloat a little at the present enthusiasm for things historical. I think back on a conversation I had a few years back with a panicked parent who shared with me her concern that her son was thinking of being a—gasp— history major, as if it were somehow my fault. What can you do with a history degree? Oh, I don’t know. Supreme Court Justice? President of the United States? My job? No, none of those positions come with stock options. To be fair, I get it. I am a parent and am well aware of the cost of college and the rate at which the boomerangs are ending up back in our basements. We want and need our students to find jobs and become self-sufficient. However, let’s remember that the discipline of history is critical to having a functioning democracy and without that we have nothing. The study of history is worthy in and of itself, and it can also serve as a springboard for many rewarding careers in government, law, business, or the arts.
The timing of Miranda’s pro-immigrant, pull-yourself-up-by your-bootstraps Broadway debut was auspicious. It opened in August 2015, just as another New Yorker helped launch the nation into its latest phase of nativism, and in a year when racial strife seemed to be plunging our nation into a balkanized abyss. This made me realize that having a shared narrative of our past, one which Americans of all backgrounds and ethnicities can appropriate, is perhaps more important than ever in a society increasingly fragmented by the myriad media outlets and diverse viewpoints competing for space in today’s American cultural landscape. It is also incumbent upon historians to help our students make sense of the past and the present in order to prepare for the future, yet we seem to have less and less of a platform from which to do it, not to mention the fact that the history curriculum has become a political football.
Meanwhile, long before No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and revised AP history rubrics, Miranda certainly learned to “think like a historian.” This is evident not only in the six years of painstaking research that went into the creation of his musical, but also in the way Miranda makes the discipline of history center stage in the production. “History has its eyes on you,” George Washington warns Hamilton as he finally gives him a command at Yorktown, and in so doing reveals his haunting regrets about his failures in the French and Indian War. The essential question of point of view, or “who tells your story,” is threaded through the entire production, embedded in various numbers and then coming front and center in the final scene as Eliza Hamilton attempts to rescue her late husband’s legacy from the ashcan of political infighting. Had it not been for Mrs. Hamilton’s lifelong quest to restore her husband’s reputation, her determined and stoic resolution to preserve his legacy, neither the monograph nor the musical would exist. Miranda makes that very clear. But what makes this play resonate so much is that it tells a great story. It reminds us that crafting a narrative for our students and teaching them to think critically are not mutually exclusive pursuits but are, on the contrary, interdependent. When I reflect on my own history education, the moments that stand out are those fabulously compelling lectures that made me sad to hear the bell ring and left me eagerly awaiting the next session. So for now, historians, relish the moment. Tell your stories. Enjoy center stage. History club anyone?
BONNIE TRAYMORE is a faculty member and the History Department Chair at Pinewood High School in Los Altos Hills, California. She has a doctorate in United States and World History from the University of Hawai'i. She previously taught at Punahou High School in Honolulu, Hawaii'i and has taught history courses at the University of Hawai'i and Columbia University.