Ben Knoll, John Marshall Harlan Associate Professor of Politics, and Tara Strauch, assistant professor of history, taught separate CentreTerm courses that had several collaborative components, including a six-day trip to New York City to see the musical “Hamilton,” as well as conduct historical tours of downtown and uptown Manhattan to visit the locations where Alexander Hamilton lived and worked for much of his life.
“Of course, the inspiration for the class was the Lin Manuel-Miranda’s ‘Hamilton’ musical,” Knoll said. “I’ve been a fanboy of Alexander Hamilton since I was 18 years old. I listened to the musical obsessively when it was first released and my then seven-year-old daughter also came down with a bad case of #Hamilmania. We were joking one day about how much fun it would be to do a Hamilton-themed class and before long the idea for ‘HamilTerm’ was born.”
Knoll’s course took students on a deep dive into the political development of the early Constitutional era in American history using the musical “Hamilton” as an organizing focus. Topics covered during the term were the Constitutional Convention, the politics of the Washington administration and the election of 1800.
“We hear constant appeals to ‘what the Founders intended’ in contemporary American politics,” Knoll added. “One of my goals for this course was to help students be better able to critically evaluate the accuracy of those claims. It turns out that the Founders disagreed on just about everything. And sometimes, we, as a society, have decided that some of the things that they intended have been worth reconsidering—or abolishing altogether. After taking this class, students not only have a much better understanding of the disagreements and debates that led to the implementation of the U.S. Constitution but are also better able to evaluate those appeals to ‘original intent.’”
In Strauch’s class, students also investigated the world of Alexandria Hamilton, examining several key questions. What ideas did Hamilton and his fellow Americans have about politics, government, religion, race, class, gender, families, honor and other topics? How did Hamilton shape the way Americans thought about the world and what parts of American culture did he embrace? Students considered the ways the musical “Hamilton” tells his story.
“The best part of this course was that students were able to see how two disciplines—history and politics—interpret the revolutionary generation and founding documents,” Strauch said. “Seeing ‘Hamilton’ together then gave us another lens to use on the past. It was a really amazing experience to get to talk as a group about all the layers of meaning and understanding we had gained about Hamilton and his peers.
“Watching our students engage with New York City was also incredible,” she continued. “They all came to the city with lists and plans and definitely took advantage of their surroundings. Not only did they experience the city but they came away with an understanding of how intertwined history is—they completed final projects that tied together the Manhattan financial district with federal tax policy and immigration patterns for example. They understood the implications of paying to see the painting ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—an art museum with some of the most precious pieces in the world—in a city occupied by the British for much of the revolution.”
by Kerry Steinhofer
March 4, 2020