THE BLOG
06/15/2016 07:32 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

'Hamilton' and Liberal Education

As a college president, I get asked time and time again where I find compelling examples of how graduates build on the broad, liberal education they receive as undergraduates. When you give students the freedom to inquire, to experiment with different kinds of study, they often bring those elements together to create resources on which they will draw beyond the university. A few years ago one of my favorite examples in this regard was the show In The Heights, which won Tony Awards and thrust its star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, into the spotlight. He had originally produced the show on our campus as a student and then -- with director and Wesleyan alumnus Tommy Kail, and playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes (now on the Wesleyan faculty) - took it to Broadway.

Even after the great success of Heights, nobody was really prepared for the truly revolutionary musical Hamilton. But given the liberal education that Miranda and Kail had received, I like to think we should have seen something like this coming. Steeped in history and uncannily responsive to contemporary culture, Hamilton is an extraordinary artistic achievement at once traditional and experimental. That's the kind of synthesis that those of us working in liberal arts colleges are always hoping for: making the past come alive in ways that expand possibilities in the present. Hamilton's source is a deep historical biography by Ron Chernow, which Miranda somehow transformed into a hip-hop opera that draws on Broadway traditions to make something profoundly original.

When Alexander Hamilton's generation considered higher education, many believed it was crucial that students not think they already knew at the beginning of their studies where they would end up when it was time for graduation. For all those who have followed on this American path of liberal education, learning was all about exploration - and you would only make important discoveries if you were open to unexpected possibilities. W.E.B. Du Bois was on that path when he argued a century after Hamilton that a broad education was a form of empowerment that must be open to those disenfranchised by the economy or by legacies of discrimination. In our time, Miranda is also on that path, creating a musical of revolution that shows how the proverbial "dead white men" can be re-imagined for contemporary citizens.

At liberal arts colleges and universities across the country, dynamic writers, scientists, scholars and artists have made campuses the catalysts for their creative endeavors. The tension between the traditional and experimental continues to energize students and faculty alike. Sure, people get training in any number of technical skills while they are undergraduates, but they also experience the power of innovation from scientists expanding our understanding of the universe and from artists and scholars deepening our knowledge of who we are, where we come from, and who we might yet become. That's what Miranda has done with Hamilton.

As we thought about the best way to honor this achievement, we decided to create a major prize to recognize creative potential in a student beginning her or his academic career at Wesleyan. This week we are announcing the Wesleyan University Hamilton Prize for Creativity: awarded to the incoming student (class of 2021) who has submitted (with the application for admission) a work of fiction, poetry, song, or creative nonfiction judged to best reflect originality, artistry and dynamism. The Hamilton Prize includes a full tuition scholarship at Wesleyan for four years. The winner of the prize will be selected by a panel of distinguished faculty and alumni.

We announce this prize at a time when many in education are abandoning their commitments to liberal learning and creativity. As many in higher education succumb to fears of being left behind and choose vocational shortcuts for their curriculum, we who believe in the power of pragmatic liberal education must develop broad, contextual learning that enables our graduates to pursue meaningful work and lifelong learning. Yes, ours is a merciless economy characterized by deep economic inequality, but that inequality must not be accepted as a given; the skills of citizenship and the powers of creativity enhanced through liberal learning can be used to push back against it.

At a time when many worry about the fate of the creative humanities at American universities, Hamilton reminds us, at many levels, that education can help enlarge the power of engaged citizens to overcome traditional hierarchies. That's one of the reasons I'm so pleased to see high school students enraptured by the show. To paraphrase the playwright, nobody should "throw away their shot." Education should maximize students' opportunities for lifelong learning, civic participation and meaningful work. We've created the "Hamilton Prize" to reflect our commitment to educating young people with the potential to revitalize our economy, animate our citizenry and energize a culture characterized by connectivity and creativity.

Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of "Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters" and "Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living with the Past."

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