Hamilton (the Musical) and Higher Ed

Learning (or not) from Broadway.

June 14, 2016

What can higher ed learn from Hamilton (the musical, not the first Secretary of the Treasury)?

How is the live musical industry different from, or similar to, the higher ed industry?

How are Broadway musicals different from, or similar to, highly selective colleges and universities?

Some Similarities:

Talent-Centric:  Consider this quote from a recent NYTimes article - ‘Hamilton’ Inc.: The Path to a Billion-Dollar Broadway Show.

"Mr. Miranda, the show’s 36-year-old creator, wears an unusual number of hats: He came up with the idea; he wrote the music, book and lyrics; and he is, for now, the star."

Change the words a bit, and you could be describing what professors at the best colleges do every single day.  Faculty create knowledge, develop educational materials, teach and mentor students, and assess and certify their work.

Place / Time Based:  Each Broadway show, and some parts of higher education, are place and time based.  The performance / education takes place at a place - a theater or a campus - at a particular time.  The theater goers, performers, students, and professors all show up in a physical room (at some point) at a certain time.

Non-Scalable:  The physical and time based nature of Broadway and some parts of higher education means that neither is particularly scalable.  Watching a movie of a Broadway show is not a substitute for going to a show on Broadway.  A MOOC is not a substitute for an in-person class.

Experiential: Broadway shows and certain types of higher education are both experiential goods.  They are valuable to the extent that they are provide an experience that is difficult to attain through other methods.  The experience of watching the film version of Hamilton (when it is made) will be different (and inferior) to the experience of seeing the show live.

Bundled:  The higher ed bundle is bigger than the Broadway bundle, but both are bundled goods.  A Broadway show bundles the theater, the actors, the musicians, the lighting and sound professionals, the ushers, and all the people and inputs that make a live show possible.

Co-Created: Higher education seems to me to be a pure co-created good, to the extent that the quality of the education is a function of both the quality of the faculty (and the environment that she teaches) and the quality of the learner.  The best learning experience occurs in places with the best learners.  Imagine going to a Broadway show alone.  The energy of a live performance depends as much on the enthusiasm and interest of the audience as the quality of the production.

Some Differences:

Grades, Degrees, and Credentials:  As far as I know, nobody going to see Hamilton gets a grade.  There are no diplomas issued at the end of a performance.  Everyone who starts in the audience makes it to the end of the show.  Lin-Manuel Miranda is not accredited to issue degrees.

Public Funding / Public Mission:  A non-scalped premium ticket at Hamilton now goes for $475, and is about to go up.  Most people pay over $700 more on the secondary ticket market.  No government funding goes to the purchase of individual tickets, or the lowering of the average ticket cost.  Unlike higher education, a Broadway show is not a public good with a public mission.

Profit vs. Non-Profit:  Hamilton will return huge profits to its creators, producers, and backers.  Higher education will not.

Learning Vs. Entertainment:  The primary purpose of Hamilton is to entertain.  I imagine - having read the Chernow book that the show is based on - that Hamilton theater goers learn a thing or two from the musical.  Is going to Hamilton hard work?  I doubt it.  Learning, on the other hand, is very hard work.  Authentic learning is difficult, painful, and often painful in the moment.  It sometimes takes years and years to appreciate the importance of what was learned (and to appreciate that really hard professor) once we leave college.

Can you add to this list of similarities and differences across these two industries?

Why is it useful (or at least fun) to try to think about Broadway (and Hamilton) with a higher ed lens?  And how does this exercise distract and obscure as much as it illuminates?

What do you think that higher ed can learn from Hamilton?



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