According to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), sixty-one million children around the world “of primary school age” were out of school in 2010 (“Reaching out-of-school children,” 2012, p. 1). These primary and secondary years are formative in a child’s education when children not only obtain literacy and numeracy skills, but also information literacy skills to learn more about the topics they are exposed to. The locations around the world with the highest out-of-school rates harbor individuals who need education the most: those who have been marginalized and those in poverty (“Reaching out-of-school children,” 2012, p. 1). 

Education is seen as a way out of many unfortunate circumstances as it “reduces poverty and promotes growth” (“Reaching out-of-school children,” 2012, p. 6). Individuals oftentimes find themselves without access to quality education, however. If an individual is hoping to flourish and advance beyond their current life circumstances, they should be given the option to discover education outside of traditional educational institutions. In order to have this opportunity, there are certain capabilities an individual must possess. 

Martha Nussbaum has done work extensively in the area of the “Capabilities Approach” (Nussbaum, 1992). She draws most of her conclusions from the work of Aristotle and John Rawls. Nussbaum’s version of the ‘Capabilities Approach’ is called “Basic Human Functional Capabilities(Nussbaum, 1992, p. 22). This version contains what she feels are “prerequisites for living a life that is fully human rather than subhuman, a life worthy of the dignity of the human being” (Nussbaum, 2006, p. 278). These specific capabilities are necessary in order for humans to have a choice to move into what will be later defined as the ‘higher threshold’.

Although this list is comprehensive in many ways, one clear, missing piece of the ‘Basic Human Functional Capabilities’ is education, for without education, one does not know how to wield the capabilities one is afforded. Furthermore, it is absolutely crucial that an individual receives what I will later describe as an ‘untainted’ education so they have a complete account of the content at hand to base their decisions on. I am particularly interested in the effects this lack of an ‘untainted’ education can have on individuals who find themselves requiring alternative access to education. 

In the case of this essay, it is important to first define the ‘Basic Human Functional Capabilitiesand find support for them. After doing so, this essay will set out to examine the role an ‘untainted’ education might play in the ‘Basic Human Functional Capabilitiesand the effect it would have on an individual’s ability to discover an alternative means to education. Although I will mainly be using the work of Nussbaum to support my claim, I will also incorporate works by supporting outside sources.

Part I: An Argument for Human Functioning and Social Justice 

In Human Functioning and Social Justice (1992), Martha Nussbaum questions whether social and political institutions are “giving people what they need in order to be capable of functioning” in society and are they doing this in a minimal way, or “are they making it possible for citizens to function well” (Nussbaum, 1992, p. 214)? These questions are important ones to pursue as they help us to discover whether we, as a society, have an ethical obligation to ensure that those who live in our society are equipped with the necessary human capabilities to flourish. Furthermore, this version of essentialism provides us with best practices for the delivery of this obligation.

According to Nussbaum, ‘essentialism’ is “the view that human life has certain central defining features”. She is quick to point out that critics assert that, in its basic form, essentialism “is linked … with an ignorance of history, with lack of sensitivity to the voices of women and minorities” (Nussbaum, 1992, p. 205). Instead of dismissing essentialism completely, she sorts the arguments into two groups: attacks on realism and non-realism. Nussbaum points out that metaphysical-realist essentialism identifies humans who believe they are simply things living in a world who exist with or without their thoughts about the world and history they live in. Nussbaum reasons that “it can be agreed that it would be extremely unwise for a political proposal to rely on the truth of metaphysical realism” (Nussbaum, 1992, p.212). Similarly she points out that internalist essentialism identifies that if you take away material items or features that enhance our humanness, we are still human, but take away our ability to recognize the future, interact with the world, or make our own choices, then we are no longer human. This thought neglects cultural and historical differences, autonomy, women, and slaves, each of which have “force” (Nussbaum, 1992, p. 209) and should not be ignored because they share ‘like’ characteristics. Finally, she points out that subjectivism identifies that our own mental thought is unquestionable if evaluated. This makes room for “free play of forces in a world situation in which the social forces affecting the lives of women, minorities, and the poor are rarely benign” (Nussbaum, 1992, p. 212). 

However, the corresponding objections are not enough for Nussbaum to throw away internalist essentialism altogether. For example, let’s consider the basic human functions “in terms of which human life is defined” (Nussbaum, 1992, p. 214), or what Nussbaum (1992) calls the “Thick Vague Conception” (Nussbaum, 1992, p.216), which consists of human capabilities and limits:

  • mortality- all humans face death and realize it is part of the human experience, 
  • bodily health and integrity- humans understand their bodies are vulnerable and have certain needs (hunger and thirst, need for shelter, sexual desire, mobility),
  • pleasure and pain- humans have a response to each,
  • cognitive capabilities- humans experience imagination and thought,
  • early infant development- humans start out as babies,
  • practical reason: humans participate in and manage their own life,
  • affiliations- humans care for other humans,
  • relatedness- humans recognize other species and nature also make up this world,
  • humor, play and recreation- humans need recreation and laughter,
  • separateness- humans live their our own lives and do not have to follow others.

Nussbaum is quick to point out that this list is incomplete because we are not simply concerned with human capability. We want humans to evolve out of the “capability to function” threshold and into what Nussbaum describes as the ‘higher threshold’ because “we do not want societies to make their citizens capable of the bare minimum” (Nussbaum, 1992, p. 221). No one should be pushed to enter this threshold, however, every human should be given the choice to “move from human life to good human life” (Nussbaum, 1992, p. 221). Nussbaum (1992) believes these “certain basic functional capabilities at which societies should aim for their citizens” (Nussbaum, 1992, p. 221) in “Level 2” of the “Thick Vague Conception” (Nussbaum, 1992, p. 222) includes being able to:

  • live out one’s life if it’s a life worth living for,
  • live in good health by being well nourished and having adequate shelter, sexual satisfaction, and mobility,
  • avoid unnecessary pain and have pleasurable experiences,
  • use the five senses and imagine, think, and reason,
  • have attachments to things and persons outside ourselves- love, grieve, feel longing, and feel gratitude,
  • form a conception of what is good and engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s own life,
  • live for and with others, show concern for others, and engage in family and social interaction,
  • be concerned for animals, plants, and the world of nature,
  • laugh, play, and enjoy recreation, and
  • live one’s own life.

“Level 2” addresses and supports the human choice to achieve more for oneself. In this level, we see more clearly the need for these functions in our own lives and the lives of others, albeit the objections presented earlier from the internalist essentialist perspective. She does throw out the internalist essentialist perspective at this point. After examining several versions of essentialism, Nussbaum reassures us that there is a version of essentialism that can survive these objections presented earlier, Aristotelian Essentialism. In the case of these functional capabilities, it says that if “a life that lacks any one of these, no matter what else it has, will be lacking in humanness” (Nussbaum, 1992, p. 222). It recognizes that “all are of central importance, and all are distinct in quality” (Nussbaum, 1992, p. 222), so all must receive equal quantities of attention.

With the definition of Aristotelian Essentialism, Nussbaum pushes us “to take these things as a focus for concern, in asking how public policy can promote the good of human beings” (Nussbaum, 1992, p. 222). Based on Nussbaum’s “Level 2” (Nussbaum, 1992, p. 222), I now propose some possible ways institutions can address these issues. Institutions should provide:

  • basic protection, disaster recovery services, safety regulations, public health, and human welfare initiatives, 
  • basic meals through food stamps and soup kitchens, low-income housing and shelters, safe-sex information and prophylactics, and free transportation, 
  • venues for civil discourse, mediation, and conflict resolution, 
  • education, equal opportunity employment, libraries, and professional and skills development,
  • marriage ceremonies, funerals and burial, and communication services,
  • mental health counseling and family planning services, 
  • community building initiatives, and 
  • park development, nature preservation, and support for cultural events and the arts.

It is true that many institutions provide these services already, but, as expressed earlier, there is a difference between providing the basic level of services and providing a level of services where citizens can flourish. I now argue that there are three defining features that give citizens the choice to cross into the ‘higher threshold’.

First, we must be sure there is an equitable distribution of resources so that each citizen has a choice to cross the ‘higher threshold’. Unless institutions document the distribution and direct effects of the resources in the community, they will not be able to justify the need for these resources. Although this may seem time consuming, it is necessary for an effective evaluation of services and distribution. One example to increase efficiency is to require citizens who utilize the resources to report back before they are able to receive further assistance. Documentation will assure that we are “devoting resources to getting everyone across before any more is given to those who are already capable of functioning at some basic level. If all cannot be brought across the threshold, to this extent the ends of public policy have not been met” (Nussbaum, 1992, p. 231-232).

Secondly, when at all possible, citizens should be given a choice in their services. When people don’t have a choice, they live a life they do not choose to live. Their only option is what is laid out in front of them, living no better than an animal, constantly on the lookout for predators, while looking for their next meal. This is no way to live; this is no human life. Autonomy is an important and innate feature in the human experience. Small choices should be built into services when possible, such as a choice between meats at a food kitchen or a choice of schools in the surrounding neighborhoods. Something that may seem this small to us matters a great deal to those who normally wouldn’t have choices in life.

Finally, an Aristotelian Essentialist would lay some ground rules for the distribution of these services. Simply handing out services and goods does not educate people about their benefits and uses and it does not empower people to reach for more or better in their lives. One example of this is in Nussbaum’s (1992) description of the work of Marty Chen who worked on elevating woman literacy rates in rural Bangladesh. Through discussion and examples, “a gradual and deep transformation” allowed for literacy to be perceived “as a skill that might be deployed in particular ways in their particular context” (Nussbaum, 1992, p.237). It was the dialog between the humanitarians trying to aid the women and the women of the village that created a common base to start a discussion in order to “fruitfully explore the concrete circumstances in which they were trying, in the one case, to live and in the other case, to promote flourishing human lives” (Nussbaum, 1992, p. 237). Institutions can learn from this example by creating a dialog with those they are trying to serve in order to create relationships and advocates within the community.

Furthermore, institutions that ignore the implementation of these three key defining features will fail to receive the benefits of their full potential. These features can mean the difference between unemployment and diverse employment options, fast food restaurants and locally supplied bistros, storefront vacancies and micro boutiques, and basic living and individual flourishing for its inhabitants. When people invest in themselves, they invest in their community and these unique qualities can expand a community’s potential and its opportunities.

In conclusion, Nussbaum lays the groundwork for us to question whether our institutions are doing enough to give people the choice to flourish. She helps us to relate to “Level 1” of “The Thick Vague Conception” (Nussbaum, 1992, p.216) with her rendition of these specific basic functional capabilities in “Level 2” (Nussbaum, 1992, p. 222). Three defining features will allow for institutions to provide these capabilities in a way that allows for citizens to have a choice to cross the ‘higher threshold’: equal distribution of resources, autonomy, and creating a dialog with the recipients. If institutions ignore these key defining features, the community will not receive buy-in from its recipients and the efforts will do little to benefit the community. 

Part II: The Need for an ‘Untainted’ Education

We have just heard a clear argument for human functioning, social justice, and Nussbaum’s ‘Basic Human Functional Capabilities’. Individuals in unfortunate circumstances oftentimes find themselves without access to quality education. In many ways, Martha Nussbaum’s (2006) ‘Capabilities Approach’ could provide these individuals with the human capital to discover education outside of the traditional means. Individuals require what I will further define as an ‘untainted’ education to leverage these capabilities, however, in order to have a choice to flourish and discover this alternative education. In the next portion of this essay, I will question whether public institutions have an obligation to provide services that allow for the ‘Basic Human Functional Capabilities’. Secondly, I will argue why a base level of ‘untainted’ education is needed in order for individuals to utilize these capabilities to choose to flourish. 

An Obligation to Provide Capabilities

Many philosophers throughout time have conceptualized their own version of justice. As we have seen, it is to the benefit of all of society that public institutions provide a level of services that bestow the ‘Basic Human Functional Capabilities’ (‘BHFC’) to its citizens. With all the theories that have been developed regarding justice, why do public institutions like the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) choose to reference this particular approach (Stanton, 2007, p. 9-10)? One feature Nussbaum has been critical of in other works is their focus on GDP (gross domestic product) (Nussbaum, 2010, p. 14) as an indicator of a society’s success. In contrast, Nussbaum’s approach is outcome-oriented, and instead measures a nation’s commitment to justice “in terms of [their] ability to secure to citizens a list of central capabilities” (Nussbaum, 2006, p. 281). A nation’s GDP is not indicative of the quality of life of all of its citizens, something to take into consideration when trying to estimate the effective education of individuals and the opportunities they have in life.

It is important to clarify that the ‘Basic Human Functional Capabilities’ do not cover an entire account of social justice, but “an account of minimum core social entitlements” (Nussbaum, 2006, p. 75) to cover until what Nussbaum refers to as the ‘threshold level’. There can, of course, be inequalities above the ‘threshold level’, if individuals choose to cross over into what has been previously described as the ‘higher threshold’. However, it comes into question whether those who have surpassed the threshold into the ‘higher threshold’ are in need of the support of the ‘BHFC’ any further. The ‘BHFC’ are meant to aid an individual in being “free, equal, and independent” (Nussbaum, 2006, p. 32). While arguments about definitions of ‘free’ and ‘equal’ can be defined in a later time, the definition of ‘independent’ plays a significant role in this essay. Nussbaum defines ‘independent’ individuals as being those “who are not under the domination of or asymmetrically dependent upon any other individuals” (32). Those who have moved into the higher threshold are surely independant because they weren’t forced, and clearly made a choice to move into the ‘higher threshold’, exercising their independence. 

Our final question in this portion of the essay is why a society should support the obligation to provide the ‘Basic Human Functional Capabilities’. Michael Sandel (1998) describes a society uniquely in the sense of a community, as one that “must be constitutive of the shared self-understandings of the participants and embodied in their institutional arrangements” (Sandel, 1998, p. 173) and, therefore, recognizes individuals are partially molded by the societies in which they are a part of. It is up to all of us to ensure the ‘BHFC’ and we have a moral duty to do so (Nussbaum, 2006, p. 307). Individuals who elect their government to vote on issues such as the basic needs of its citizens are not only concerned about the needs of others or themselves, but also the societal benefits of such a system. As we will soon discuss, when the basic needs of even a few individuals are ignored, an entire society can suffer the consequences.

An ‘Untainted’ Education

There are two education issues we should be concerned with in the world, 1) if individuals are receiving an education at all and 2) if individuals are receiving a thorough, complete, and unbiased education. It is this second issue with which I am concerned about in terms of this essay. Students across the country in the United States are receiving an incomplete education through one that does not present a complete account of events and situations. One component of the problem includes textbooks that do not provide comprehensive accounts of events and situations, such as that of ‘9/11’ (Zehr, 2009) and the Great Depression (Cargill & Mayer, 1998) and many classrooms that haven’t been ‘flipped’ to allow for critical discussion through a variety of perspectives and mediums versus the traditional ‘sage-on-the-stage’ delivery. Popular media is equally so for encouraging the public to hear and believe, instead of further investigating the truth (Best, 2012). This type of education, formal and informal, is tainted. 

Indeed, it can be argued that a tainted education could have detrimental effects on an individual’s ability to wield capabilities they are offered by public institutions. Nussbaum might argue that the ‘Basic Human Functional Capabilities’ offer an individual the choice to utilize them, but I argue that if a person’s thoughts are swayed by a vengeful body, then they really are not being offered the same opportunities of other individuals. For example, poor dietary advice could lead individuals to health problems, poorly interpreted religious documents could influence an individual to do harm to themselves and others, and collective thoughts of a political party could influence an individual to be concerned more about profit than about the nature they may be harming with production. In one of her most worrisome stories, Nussbaum (1999) tells us about Fauziya, a young lady from Kpalime who was granted political asylum after she ran away from a life of forced marriage, genital mutilation, and ceased education. Many who oppose such customs in Fauziya’s culture are branded as a ‘Westernizer’ or ‘colonialist’ or “any other bad thing that may carry public sentiment” (p. 129). Nussbaum questions whether a family member would be able to make a sound decision on behalf of a daughter, like Fauziya, when their culture is all they have ever known and their society lacks literacy and education to find alternative paradigms” (p. 127). Fauziya’s story is a complex one that represents the many others directly affected by a lack of an ‘untainted’ education that I will now define.

An ‘untainted’ education is one that teaches through objective consideration and takes an interdisciplinary approach to cover a variety of perspectives. When we present an ‘untainted’ perspective, we are empowering people to discover more about a topic. Nussbaum (2006) calls on the word ‘dignity’ (Nussbaum, 2006, p. 278) to describe the sort of life humans are entitled to live. When we blindside people with lies and incomplete information, we are treating them unfairly and without respect. We are lying to them and damaging their ability to make decisions and conclusions with all the facts at hand. Still, it is true that individuals may still choose the wrong path even though they have the ‘Basic Human Functional Capabilities’ and have received an ‘untainted’ education. The purpose is not the choice, but that they are offered one and “that the choice should be left to them” (Nussbaum, 2006, p. 80).

Many key suggestions have been left for us to conceptualize an ‘untainted’ education that encourages people to flourish in society. First, John Rawls (1993) suggests that individuals from an early age should be educated on their “constitutional and civic rights” (p. 197) so that individuals know they are always free to choose and change their minds about their affiliations, so that they never make decisions based on “ fear of punishment for offenses that do not exist” (p. 197). Secondly, Nussbaum (2010) believes that individuals should be encouraged to examine their thoughts because those who cannot conclude what they truly believe and stand for “often prove all too easily influenced” (p. 50). Third, Nussbaum (2010)  also critiques the popular practice of standardized tests used in schools and continuing education across the nation that squash the kind of Socratic approaches to teaching and learning that influence individuals to critically examine situations from a variety of perspectives (p. 48). This practice leads us to consider ourselves not just citizens in our societies, but “citizens of the world” (p. 80).

Once an ‘untainted’ education is conceptualized, there are a few key stakeholders who can ensure it is practiced. First, teachers, trainers, administration, learning coaches, and mentors can not only flip their classrooms to encourage the points listed above, but can also help to co-develop curriculum that can be co-developed in a collaborative environment. This curriculum will embrace the humanities approach to education that creates “complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements” (Nussbaum, 2010, p. 2). Secondly, pressure must be put on governing democracy’s ability to stay “vital, respectful, and accountable” (Nussbaum, 2010, p. 78). As Michael Sandel brings up, “when politics goes well, we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone” (Sandel,1998, p. 183). The effects of not ensuring an ‘untainted’ education for individuals can be detrimental for the entire society. Therefore, we have a “collective obligation to find ways of living and cooperating together so that all human beings have decent lives” (Nussbaum, 2006, p. 280). We can only make this happen if we require those elected to “impose on all, in a suitable fair way, responsibility to support the capabilities of all, up to a minimum threshold” (Nussbaum, 2006, p. 310). 

An Alternative Means to Formal Education

Learning is an instinctual function for humans. As infants, it is how we learn to eat, communicate, and love. As children, we learn about our world, to move our bodies, and to meet others. Later in life, we learn how to drive a car, adapt on the job, and become a functioning member of society. John Rawls’ (1993) particularly believes this last point about being a functioning member of society, but his conception of the citizen also acknowledges that individuals “want to be, and to be recognized as, such members” of society” (p. 81). For those who lack the education, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to be contributing members of society, it simply means they aren’t given the choice. Access to education is a key determinant of one’s job opportunities and quality of life, even though it is “unequally distributed” (Nussbaum, 2010, p. 12). It is unfortunate that an individual’s’ choices in life can be restricted by their exclusion from access to a quality education.

Recent advances in technology offer individuals a chance to discover education elsewhere. New media involves the use of mobile, highly accessible, multi-lingual, and low-cost medium that is allowing people to expand their network and discover the increasing number of resources at their disposal. Howard Rheingold is a cyberculture expert who looks at ways in which we can use new media mindfully. Rheingold (2012) says that “knowing that you have a printing press, broadcasting station, community hall, marketplace, school, and a library of all knowledge in your pocket -and knowing how to use it for your own benefit-is what makes the difference between a consumer of electronic gadgets and an empowered citizen” (p. 18). Employees can collaborate on a project with team members regardless of location or device. High school girls can take a foreign language course not offered at their school with others girls from around the world (Rathgeber, 2012). Finally, individuals who have been marginalized because of their impairments and disabilities, can expect nearly equal access when they log online to co-develop an open piece of software or a ‘collaborative democracy’ bill  (Rheingold, 2012, p. 148). 

Marginalized groups who find themselves excluded from access to quality education can call upon an “untainted” education to wield “Basic Human Functional Capabilities” to discover education elsewhere. The first step involved is the actual education where an individual is sure to exercise their capabilities of imagination, planning one’s own life, and living their own life.  The Internet not only contains many free online books and published information (Rheingold, 2012, p. 3), but also free online courses offered by our nation’s top universities (MIT News Office, 2012).  Aristotle referenced the informal learning people do in their own lives through experiences, “for the things we have to learn before we can do, we learn by doing” (Aristotle & Ostwald, 1962, II.1103a33). The second step is to credit the informal learning, such as through a portfolio. Though there is still much work to be done to get employers and institutions to accept alternative forms of credit, an individual now can present proof of their achievements that can be bartered for college credit.

There are many populations who can benefit from alternative access to education. Minority women are part of the most persecuted groups on the planet. In many third world areas around the world, women are encouraged to marry young and take on the bodily burden for bearing and caring for children, which denies them a choice to pursue an education and ambitions. Minority women in the United States are not banned from attending college by law, but are also faced with having to choose between self and family. When individuals in the U.S. come from an environment of poverty, they may have to give up their dreams of higher education because they simply can’t afford the cost. If young people are lucky enough to graduate, their student loan debt may be crippling and they find themselves working to just make ends meet, instead of for advancement. Individuals who find themselves out of their chosen career or out of a job completely may find that their human capital is starting to slip in the area of their chosen field. Alternative access to education can benefit minority women around the world, those in poverty, recent graduates, and those who are unemployed by giving them new knowledge that will help them to update their skills. 


Individuals in marginalized groups can find themselves without access to educational opportunities the majority is presented with. There is hope for individuals who require an alternative access to education. Advanced technology and new media now allows individuals to access information and display their learnings in a variety of ways. I now refer back to my conclusion about Aristotelian Essentialism in Part I to see if it still supports individuals who require alternative access to education. Because it can be argued that a tainted education can impair one or more of the capabilities from being fully accessed, Aristotelian Essentialism would argue that a human life requires full access to all of the capabilities (Nussbaum, 1992, p. 222). Therefore, Aristotelian Essentialism would support an individual in their quest to gain more complete access to their capabilities. In order to have a choice to flourish and discover this alternative education, however, individuals require what I have defined as an ‘untainted’ education to leverage the ‘Basic Human Functional Capabilities’. Martha Nussbaum’s (2006) ‘Capabilities Approach’ could provide these individuals with the means to discover education outside of the traditional means.


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