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The American Dream through Music and Skills Training

by Christian Haigh   •  

My first trip to the United States was as part of a children’s chorus in 2004. The lure of economic prosperity and social mobility was made real to my 10-year-old self by the majestic skyscrapers towering over midtown Manhattan, the extravagant servings of prime steak in Kansas City, and the monstrous trucks that picked us up from the airport in Texas. The craving to return to the land of opportunity never faded, and last year I took a step toward realizing that dream by enrolling in the class of 2017 at Harvard University.

Growing up in the rigid class system of Great Britain, there was no reason for my story to be different from that of my father’s. His lack of opportunity to go to college was largely attributable to his attending an underfunded, understaffed local school. The majority of his peers took similar paths, either finishing their education during high school or dropping out part way through college. 

From age five, my mother, having a different goal, taught me to play the piano, incentivizing me to learn music with chocolate. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how much this early musical training contributed to my educational opportunities, as  I saw other students and friends fall victim to a problematic education system. 

With a strong musical background, I gained music scholarships, improving my opportunities far beyond my parents’ financial means, culminating in acceptance to Harvard. For me, musical training became the answer to accessing opportunity and moving closer to the American Dream.

The reality for many, however, is that the dream is out-of-reach. Each day, 7,000 students drop out of high school and an education gap has led to a glaring skills gap. According to Opportunity Nation Steering Committee Member America’s Promise Alliance, American businesses currently demand 97 million middle- and high-skill employees – but only 45 million Americans have the necessary skills to do the work.

My story is a success, but it need not be the exception. Music, one type of vocational training, has shown me how often doors open because of all a solid skill-set. I became an Opportunity Nation Scholar because my experience has given me insight into the problems with education systems, potential solutions for which to advocate and a drive to make success stories like mine the rule.

The current youth unemployment crisis cannot be resolved merely by improving traditional education. Across the world, governments and private organizations are increasingly looking toward career and technical education and a better integration of the classroom into the workplace as the means of bridging the gap between inadequate schooling and good jobs. I, for one, can speak of the benefits that arise from on-the-job training, having used music to escape the limitations of a lackluster education.

Many of the skills required by companies are not easily suited to traditional methods of teaching. Effective professors have had to find innovative approaches. CS51, an introductory course in computer science at Harvard, almost exclusively uses code examples to teach students how to write their own programs. Students are then given weekly problem sets, such as creating a search-engine, a sound-file converter or a programmatic calculator. These are all real-world problems that could be tackled in a work environment that is better suited to teamwork and integrated learning out of the way of the high-pressured, competitive classrooms of America’s universities. In other words, we learn these skills in an environment that is conducive to a different kind of learning from that of the traditional classroom.

Don’t get me wrong. There is still a place for traditional education. But everybody may not choose it. The goal of a dynamic education system should be to allow everyone to thrive and to realise his or her full potential. Allowing young adults the option between traditional liberal arts education and career and vocational training gives students an opportunity to find the fit that’s right for them.

So let’s reform the way we think about education and invest in on-the-job training and multiple pathways to secure good jobs, as outlined in Opportunity Nation’s Shared Plan. Let’s create apprenticeships and bridge the gap between school and work. Let’s urge employers to provide that training, through subsidies, legislation and advocacy. Let’s all do our part to create an environment that will allow companies to better match unemployed youth to jobs, and in the process, create a healthier and more sustainable society that will once again, make the American Dream a reality for more young adults.


Christian Haigh

Christian Haigh is a sophomore at Harvard University and an Opportunity Scholar. 

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