Arts Education and Human Capability

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Arts Education and Human Capability

Patrick Kabanda, Undercover Artist and Well-Tempered Non-Economist; author of Creative Wealth of Nations


Knowledge, as widely understood, is the engine of modern economic progress. In that sense, education, as part of knowledge, is a driver of economic development. That’s why the idea of “human capital” augmentation is preached so widely in development discourse.

So what is knowledge? Clearly, it isn’t limited to science, engineering, and math (STEM). These subjects, however vital, aren’t the whole, but a part, of knowledge. Knowledge also encompasses the arts and humanities—profound subjects that are undervalued largely because their economic contribution, or value, isn’t well understood both within and outside the arts community.

Since one of the synonyms of “knowledge” is “capability,” I prefer to use the term “human capability” instead of “human capital” when describing the infinite, diverse, and myriad ways that the arts and humanities contribute, directly and indirectly, to positive social change and economic development.

In their article, “Who Knew? Arts Education Fuels the Economy,” my friend Sunil Iyengar and his colleague Ayanna Hudson, both at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), highlight the following estimates: Arts education (which here refers only to academic performing arts centers, departments of fine arts and performing arts, and postsecondary fine arts schools) added more than $7.5 billion in 2011 to America’s gross domestic product. In that same year, the arts education sector employed over 17,000 workers, whose salaries and wages totaled $5.9 billion. Elsewhere in the American economy, an additional 56 cents are generated for each dollar consumers spend on arts education.

These numbers come from America’s first Arts and Culture Production Satellite Account, a partnership between the NEA and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Their significance is clearly immense. However, there’s more to arts education than what’s usually captured in economic statistics.

From boardrooms to classrooms, the word creativity is thrown around to the point that it’s becoming a platitude. But where does creativity come from? According to Sir Ken Robinson, whose TED talk “Do schools kill creativity?” has attracted more than 66 million views, “Creativity often comes about by making unusual connections, seeing analogies, identifying relationships between ideas and processes that were previously not related.” Those attributes, or rather capabilities, which involve observation, collaboration, curiosity, self-esteem, play, and so on, are unequivocally manifested in the arts. As Robinson adds, no wonder many effectively creative teams are interdisciplinary.

Moreover, from Leonardo da Vinci, whose contributions stretched from human anatomy to astronomy and engineering, to Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil (yes, they worked as a team!), whose ‘spread-spectrum radio’ invention is nowadays understood as a precursor to Wi-Fi, many artists have contributed ideas that have fueled economic progress. Debate tends to focus on the chicken-and-egg problem—whether these individuals are geniuses in the first place—but that overlooks the growing crescendo of research acknowledging the benefits of arts education.

But it would be a mistake to promote the arts just because they can pump the economy in the limited sense of how economic value is traditionally attributed. A holistic approach is needed: the arts should be promoted in their own right for the bounteous delights they shower upon us.

The Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has written widely about the distinction between human capital and human capability. He acknowledges that “if education makes a person more efficient in commodity production, then this is clearly an enhancement of human capital”—in our context, let’s call this creative capital. “This can add to the value of production in the economy and also to the income of the person who has been educated.” But he adds that when we consider the dimension of human capability (in this case creative capability), “even with the same level of income, a person may benefit from education, in reading, communicating, arguing, in being able to choose in a more informed way, in being taken more seriously by others, and so on.”

Sen concludes that with its benefits, education—including arts education—“exceeds its role as human capital in commodity production.”

Indeed, if arts education champions the interdisciplinary, synthesizing, and creative skills needed to confront complex 21st century challenges, that means its pedagogy has never been more important. We need these skills not just to power the economy, but also to address challenges like the climate crisis and the economic and social inequities that grip the United States, almost as if an invisible fermata had been imposed by a demonic conductor to hold back such a rich country from making inclusive progress. Therefore, to realize the arts’ diverse contribution to meaningful development, creative capability looks more capable than ever.

To learn about Patrick Kabanda’s book The Creative Wealth of Nations: Can the Arts Advance Development?, click here.


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