Seven years ago at the White House, Lin-Manuel Miranda described the premise of his still unfinished musical. And an esteemed crowd laughed.
Miranda explained that he’d be performing a song from his project “about the life of someone who embodies hip hop.” Standing on a stage in the storied East Room—where the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed, where Gerald Ford took the presidential oath of office—Miranda had to improvise, “You laugh, but it’s true…” The gathered glitterati thought “Alexander Hamilton” was a punch line.
But so it goes with virtually every big idea worth having. As Einstein said, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” Had it been obvious, someone else would’ve come up with it ages earlier. But the first-blush appearance of absurdity places an enormous burden on the progenitor. Twain was right: "The man with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds."
This requires not just courage but self-efficacy: this idea might be important—critics be damned—and I can make it so. This is Hamilton’s story: Something breathtakingly inspired and completely implausible but absolutely indefatigable. He was a once-in-a-generation talent but family dysfunction, illness, geography, and more conspired against him. But he was relentless—a natural entrepreneur “ready to beg, steal, borrow, or barter,” an autodidact “reading every treatise on the shelf.”
It’s not hard to see why Hamilton’s story resonated with Miranda. Both prolific writers: the former of innumerable essays; the latter of this 20,000-word musical magnum opus. Both possessing a preternatural spark of creativity; Hamilton conjuring magic on the battlefield, at the Constitutional Convention, in federal service; Miranda seeing before everyone else that the personalities and backgrounds of the Founding Fathers and their internecine war of ideas and words fit perfectly with the history and ethos of hip hop. But Miranda, the son of a Puerto Rican immigrant, also showed Hamilton-esque doggedness. Years and years of struggle preceded his first production’s Broadway arrival and the completion of his meticulous tour de force.
It’s no coincidence that the biggest artists in hip hop—on whom Hamilton’s characters are fastidiously based—exemplify this same blend of talent and resilience. Though they might’ve grown up in the toughest circumstance, they didn’t allow those factors to stop them from working to realize their potential.
For much of America’s history, we saw struggle and success as two sides of a single coin. We assumed an individual’s triumphs followed a long list of trials. Our fellow citizens endured the grueling colonial and pioneer periods; revolutionary, civil, and world wars; slavery, indentured servitude, sweatshops, the Depression. Our nation’s narratives taught that exertion and victory were inseparable. Whether the American Dream, bootstrapping, Horatio Alger-ism, or Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis,” our story was that anyone willing to tirelessly strive had access to endless possibilities.
But this part of the American narrative is in jeopardy. Whether it’s because of growing economic inequality, our economy’s continuing anemia, obstacles to upward mobility, our flailing federal government, or something else, more people doubt that personal agency produces success.
Our national ambivalence is exemplified by the tension between those seeking to unmask “privilege” and those advocating “grit.” The former argues that unearned advantages associated with race, gender, family income, and other factors account for much of an individual’s success. The latter argues that learnable personal behaviors are key. At issue is the extent to which effort matters.
I believe the “privilege” lens can be like a candle used for illumination: It reveals dark corners, helping us see the meaningful advantages and disadvantages people possess through no credit or fault of their own. But the privilege candle can also be used for arson, to burn down what others have built through labor. By attributing too much of one’s success to luck, it can diminish her effort and sacrifice. Worse, it can undermine our collective interest in inculcating in our students values (like conscientiousness, verve, and determination) that lead to individual, community, and national flourishing.
This is where our schools come in. They should have a point of view on the essential question, “What contributes to success?” That is, what should our kids believe about the relative weights of the social determinism of “privilege” and the aspirational possibilities of “grit”?
Every child will face obstacles. He might be Alexander Hamilton, the “bastard, orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence impoverished, in squalor.” He might be Tupac (on whom Miranda modeled his Hamilton), thinking, “Is life worth living? Should I blast myself? I’m tired of being poor, and, even worse, I’m black. My stomach hurts so I’m looking for a purse to snatch.”
Because even after all the privilege is owned, and all of the haters’ laughter subsides, there will still be a distance between where we are and where we want to be. Do we imply to our kids that there’s only so much they can do, or do we teach them the lessons of the American Dream and Hamilton’s anthem:
Andy Smarick is a Partner in Bellwether’s Policy and Thought Leadership practice, joining the organization in 2012. Andy is a member of the Maryland State Board of Education and the author of “The Urban School System of the Future.” He served as New Jersey’s Deputy Commissioner of Education where he helped lead initiatives including the state’s successful ESEA waiver and Race to the Top 3 applications, the launching of a new teacher evaluation system, and an overhaul of the department’s charter school authorizing.