What’s the state of our nation?

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I was fortunate enough to see Hamilton (thanks, Corinne!), and it absolutely lived up to expectations. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve made my peace with the musical, despite some quibbles with the interpretation of the period it presents, and thought about how it might impact my scholarship and my teaching. I thought I was done processing Hamilton,  But then I saw it in the Age of Trump, and I hope you’ll indulge me in what is a rather naive and self-indulgent examination of the feelings it provoked.

To have (black) George Washington pointing at us all while singing “history has its eyes on you” was chilling in a way I did not expect. Lately, it’s felt like everyone in the U.S. is conscious of this, whether they think history will look on this as a moment of triumph or tragedy. I thought that I might see history with the election of the first female president, something I now doubt I’ll see in my lifetime, but since the election, the gravity of this historical moment has weighed on me in a way I couldn’t have imagined before November 8. When I can summon up black humor, I joke that I’ll change the subtitle of US II to “Laws and programs that are currently being repealed.”  But it doesn’t feel like a moment for humor, no matter how black.

Instead, we’ve all been doing what we can, and one of the things I can do is teach. The problem is…my teaching has seemed exceptionally flat, even futile, since the election, and I’ve been trying to get a handle on why. Certainly I think that much of my teaching serves to complicate narratives of progress and perpetual freedom that many of my students come in with. I think it’s important to show students just how hard fought certain freedoms have been, and how much resistance there has been (and continues to be) to rights that many of us take for granted.  I still think that’s an important part of teaching United States history and I will continue to do it.

Since the election, though, I have realized on a much deeper level how fragile and susceptible the “American experiment” was and is. We know this intellectually, and as an early Americanist, I suppose I’m really supposed to know it. I think I always knew it on an intellectual level in my teaching life as well, since I’ve often had students arguing that Japanese internment was a good thing, or that there must have been a way to reform slavery without ending it that would have made it “okay” for black Americans, or that it would be better for all women to stay home since they were the natural caregivers, or that we should reintroduce literacy tests.[1]This last point is made all the more fascinating by the fact that some argue this even after they’ve failed a sample literacy test from the 1960s.

In response to this, I’ve tried to teach about historical contests over civil rights, and human rights, and the equality of individuals before the law. I’ve hoped that showing students how the “other” is a shifting category might give them pause, especially when they realize their immigrant ancestors were considered “other,” even as they are now considered “American.”

It doesn’t feel like enough right now. Or maybe it doesn’t feel like the right approach. Before the election, I argued that we needed history, not just civics, but in this moment, I don’t quite know how to go forward in the classroom. Despite a full awareness that much has been broken in our country’s past – often much more severely than at this moment – it feels like something just broke and I didn’t know how much I counted on it till it did.[2]Shout-out to the two people who got this allusion to another political musical, revival edition.

This feeling of brokenness made me realize that in teaching all the ways the U.S. hasn’t lived up to its stated ideals, I may not ever have been clear enough  with my students – or myself – exactly what those ideals have meant to people, and what they’ve created when they worked.  But I don’t mean the ideal of individual liberty, something my students spend a lot of time thinking about. Instead, I’ve been thinking about whether my teaching really examines ideals like “the common good,” “the public interest,” “accountability,” and “public service.”

These are all concepts shaped by specific historical forces, and have often been deployed in ways that served to divide, rather than unite, but they are important concepts nonetheless, even if the specific terms aren’t in our founding documents. Some would argue they’ve never been true ideals, or not consistently held to, or have often been held up as ideals merely as cover for larger foreign policy goals, and I might agree somewhat. But I would argue they’ve been ideals, and that hewing to them even somewhat has been an important part of maintaining the norms that have sustained the experiment.

In talking to friends who’ve seen Hamilton, there’s always a discussion of the points at which everyone cried during the performance. I didn’t cry at Laurens’ death, but I did cry throughout “It’s Quiet Uptown,” along with the rest of the theater, because how can you not. I can’t even listen to that on the cast recording without crying. And I cried when Eliza told us about the orphanage. What caught me off guard, though, was my reaction to a line in a song that’s never really resonated with me before.

When Laurens walked downstage, with his pint held high, and sang “Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away,” a completely unexpected sob caught in my throat. In that moment, instead of understanding that as a paean to individual liberty, I felt deeply how precarious freedom is without the norms of civil society – or even the most modest commitment to the common good – to support and sustain it.


1 This last point is made all the more fascinating by the fact that some argue this even after they’ve failed a sample literacy test from the 1960s.
2 Shout-out to the two people who got this allusion to another political musical, revival edition.

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