Lin-Manuel Miranda on the arts, teaching and our democracy

The arts enrich our lives, the teaching profession deserves our respect, Latinx people should have a president who does not demonize them, and our democracy is at stake in this election. Those were among the topics discussed in a wide-ranging conversation that AFT President Randi Weingarten had with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and star of the award-winning musical “Hamilton.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Randi Weingarten

Weingarten and Miranda were introduced by Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram, who is a former band director. “Now more than ever, we need the arts—visual, vocal, theater and instrumental, just to name a few—to be part of a well-rounded, high-quality public education for all students,” he said. Ingram, also an AFT vice president, cited a Brookings Institution report from February 2019 on a large study that provided empirical evidence that arts education positively affects students’ academics as well as their social and emotional development.

In his conversation with Weingarten, Miranda attested to that fact. He smiled as he recalled the names of social studies and English teachers who inspired him. Among them was Dr. Rembert Herbert, his eighth-grade English teacher at Hunter College High School (a seventh- through 12th-grade public school in New York City), who urged him to go beyond writing “angst-y poetry” to writing plays for school. “I’ll always be in his debt for that,” he said.

Weingarten noted that Miranda himself is a former teacher. After earning his theater degree, his first job out of college was as a substitute seventh-grade English teacher at Hunter, his alma mater.

Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton in Puerto Rico
pic credit: Ramon

Upon entering the classroom, Miranda said his biggest misconception was that teaching would simply entail performing—that he would hold forth and students would learn from him. “I invariably found the more I listened, the less I spoke, the more effective I was as a teacher,” he said. “And I found that the magic of teaching really is introducing an idea.” As his particular story line would have it, Miranda eventually pursued a career not as an educator but as a musical theater songwriter.

Weingarten praised the way Miranda has made “civics cool” with “Hamilton,” the hit musical about Alexander Hamilton, who was a leader throughout the American Revolution and wrote much of the Federalist Papers. And she noted his work with the Hamilton Education Program, a partnership between the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the show’s producers. The online program, in which students study primary sources from America’s founding, encourages them “to write their own poetry or music or scenes or essays based on other people in history that may have been overlooked, that they haven’t learned about necessarily in their curriculum,” Miranda said. “That’s the most exciting thing for me. It’s all promise, and it’s all just awakening curiosity and finding inspiration in history.”

Weingarten asked Miranda about his passion for Puerto Rico, where the AFT represents the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the largest teachers union on the island. Because his parents hail from Puerto Rico, Miranda brought his Broadway hit there last year to help raise money for local artists and arts organizations in the wake of Hurricane Maria. “The arts are such a part of the culture and the lifeblood of the island,” he said, adding that the arts often get forgotten in recovery efforts.

Weingarten announced a $50,000 contribution from the AFT to the Latino Victory Fund, a progressive political action committee focused on increasing Latinx representation in government. “We know the … presence of Latinas and Latinos has to be in the Congress,” she said. Miranda thanked her, noting that never has a U.S. president “demonized” Latinos more than Trump has. “That doesn’t change without a voice in the halls of power,” said Miranda, who shared that he will vote for Joe Biden. “Our democracy is at stake.”

[Jennifer Dubin]