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  • Anna Brix Thomsen

The Skills We Need to Change the World: DAY 74

As the human race has developed, it is our cognitive and mental skills we have given the most credit for our ‘evolution’ – an evolution that has lead us into space and virtual realities and through which we have concocted unimaginable technologies and inventions, but that has also left the earth scorn and wretched. So what are the skills most needed to function effectively and optimize our living conditions on this planet?

In The Republic[i] Ancient Greek philosopher Plato famously said that:

“The society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers become rulers in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.”

Plato claimed that we all have our righteous place in the world where those who are most developed within cognitive skills (such as philosophizing) are naturally meant to rule and where those whose skills belong more to the physical realm naturally must have inferior functions in society.

The question is: was he right?

What are the most important skills we as human beings require to function effectively in this world?

In the article Reconceptualizing Human Capita from (1997l[ii], sociologists Nancy Folbre and Paula England discuss the concept of Capabilities in context to the concept of Human Capital to discuss the basic skills that we as humans need to function effectively in the world. They ask why cognitive capabilities are prioritized as being more important than other capabilities and in this article I discuss their perspectives in the context to the implementation of a Guaranteed Living Income System. Folbre and England’s emphasis on the importance of a more equal valuation of capabilities highlights the necessity and utility of implementing a Living Income System – here especially in the context of education, not only of our children, but also of ourselves because that is an absolute imperative for us to be able to change the course the world is currently on. We might not be navigators or steersmen or captains, but we’re certainly driving the ‘boat’ that is this world and the question we have to ask ourselves is whether it is worth it to sink just to stay on the course we’ve set for ourselves or whether we dare turning the entire machinery around, not knowing where we will go except for anywhere but into the direction from which we came?

Let’s have a brief look at Folbre and England’s definition of capabilities:

Folbre and England define a capability, as a skill set that requires effort from the individual to be developed and that, once applied and implemented enables one to function effectively in society. Folbre and England describe four different types of capabilities: physical, cognitive, self-regulating and caring capabilities.

The physical capabilities are the basic practical skills required to be able to care for oneself at physical level. These capabilities include but are not limited to: cooking food, getting dressed, cleaning the house, knowing when to respond to pain etc. However with these basic physical functioning capabilities, Folbre and England contends that they are often not valued, discussed or emphasized be it in social science, economics or even politics, and they suggest that this can be because of the tradition in human history of valuing “mind over matter”. (This is a topic that is exhaustibly discussed in the academic world, c.f. René Descartes famous quote: “I think, therefore I am”.) [i] I am not going to go deeper into this discussion here.)

Cognitive Capabilities

Cognitive capabilities include what is considered ‘formal education’ that according to Folbre and England has an extensive impact on one’s income earning abilities. One reason for this is as mentioned above that cognitive capabilities focuses on mental rather than physical skills which are given substantially more emphasis in the education system, hence the rise of the ‘knowledge economy’ in recent years. Besides the capabilities that is achieved through education, such as reading, writing and math, Folbre and England also describe other capabilities such as house hold economy, the ability to see the cause and effect of one’s actions and points such as mental health and emotions as part of the cognitive capabilities.

Self-Regulation Capabilities

Self-Regulation capabilities are based on the ability to be self-disciplined and Folbre and England suggests that this capability is the basis for the other capabilities, because without self-discipline, one is not capable to develop for example the ability to write. When self-discipline is developed one become able to perform tasks that one does not necessarily want to do or that one experience as difficult. Folbre and England suggest that self-regulation, as a capability is not valued in the economic system as  human capital because economic theory would define self-regulation as a preference and not as a skill. Folbre and England however argues that self-regulation in fact is both a skill and a preference through for example pointing to how becoming skilled and enjoying oneself once skilled is mutually constitutive.

Caring Capabilities

Caring capabilities is described by Folbre and England as a ‘service’ that differs from the other capabilities in that it also contains an element of altruism. They argue that having this capability might not (only) benefit oneself but also others and even that one within this is capable of expressing care without it being of any immediate benefit for oneself, something that according to Folbre and England, refutes the neo-classical notion of rational self-interest. While caring capabilities does require the other capabilities for it to function effectively, it also requires qualities such altruism affection and warmth to be expressed effectively. Folbre and England argues that the main point to make note of in relation to caring capabilities that even though caring as a ‘service’ to others can be exchanged on the labor market, is that it is still valued as less than other types of skills.

Why are Capabilities important for society?

Folbre and England argues that capabilities are dependent on their social embeddedness and as such exists as a form of social capital. They claim that both new and traditional economic thinking have “underestimated the social and political nature that effects which children will have their capabilities developed the most” and that as such that “resource constraints should not be ignored.” What this means is that an assumption within neoclassical economic thinking (that which our current world system is operating from) is that everyone intrinsically have ‘equal opportunities’ to develop skills and capabilities. Everyone is in essence ‘equals’ as human beings within having an intrinsic rational self-interest. Folbre and England however highlights the fact that the conditions we are born into determine – to an utmost extend – what opportunities we are able to learn from and develop skills and capabilities within. These conditions are created through a political and financial system that in turn is created by us as human beings. It is not a system created by nature itself. Who and what we live as human beings is thus something we decide individually and collectively in interdependence.

Revaluing our Capabilities

As mentioned in the beginning of this article, for a long time physical work has been disregarded as ‘crude’ and ‘simple’. This is reflected in how people that primarily work with the physical receive a much lower wage than those working in the ‘knowledge economy’. When our children are sent to school, one of the primary points they are to learn, is to disconnect the mind from the body and use the body as a tool for the mind to expand, something that can be seen for example in how we have to learn early on to still and listening to the teacher while suppressing the body’s urge to jump or sing or move. And as a result, in all educational policies it is thus the cognitive capabilities that are prioritized which can be seen in how all forms of craft classes, art, music and sports are minimized and cut back. But when looking at what it is the children are learning about the world, that which they are supposed to learn, to enable themselves to live as effective human beings, it is all focused on the mental processes and capabilities. Children are expected to grow up and direct their physical world and reality, from within and as the mind, while the body remains a mere vehicle, a tool. In very few schools do children learn about their own bodies or how they can create an effective relationship to their bodies. Nor do they learn how to cook, clean or care for animals.

Children do not learn how to interact with nature either, with animals or with the bodies of other children and adults. Instead they learn to disconnect themselves from the physical, to use the body for competitive sports or transportation and as they grow up, they are expected to know how to move and care for their bodies, without actually being in (contact with) their bodies or having learned how the body functions or operates. They might learn about health regimes and that “milk is good for you”, but they don’t learn to feel in their stomach when some food is not supportive for them and then being able to make the directive decision not to eat this food. They do not learn to touch or support themselves or each other in ways to alleviate pain or simply for enjoyment.

We can thus draw a straight line from how the physical is disregarded in the current education system to how the state the world currently is in. What thrive are mind-based designs and constructs at the expense of the physical world – the real world – in which and we live and that we cannot live without. The aspect of physical functioning or capabilities thus reaches beyond far learning basic skills – it involves caring for the entire planet as well as for each other and ourselves.

According to Folbre and England, self-regulation and discipline is both a preference and a skill. It becomes a preference when we discover the joy of completing a task or in learning something new. But as education is designed in the current system, the sole emphasis is on the skill aspect of self-discipline, where we are skilling ourselves to be able to compete with others in an unstable job market. This competition is based on fear of surviving and in many countries that is what enables children to remain disciplined – not because they are enjoying it and expanding within it. Furthermore, the way education systems are designed, children and adults are most often running on tight deadlines where textbooks have to be consumed with the speed of light giving little room to digesting and contemplating the information for oneself.

A Living Income Perspective on Education and Capabilities

A Living Income perspective on education is that learning is about expanding and exploring oneself, alone and together with others – teaching is about standing as a living example, not a regurgitator of indoctrinating brainwash that only has the purpose of creating stupid obedient consumer slaves. Furthermore: both physical and cognitive capabilities should be developed in a variety of ways that incorporate physical learning with focus on developing capabilities that are Best for All as well as the individual in a setting that is not based on fear of not surviving, but instead on self-expression, dedication and openness. If self-discipline is taught without self-consideration or direction, we educate followers that will create secret inner lives where they can live out their desires in shame and create workers that only do exactly as much as they have to for then to go home and leave the rest to someone else. Instead we can educate ourselves (and our children) to develop a self-discipline that is based on dignity, self-integrity and on doing what is Best for All.

A mentioned by Folbre and England, the caring sector is highly underpaid compared to occupations that favor cognitive capabilities. This includes teachers, nurses and all other professions where it is the care for other humans (and animals) that are the primary work function. What this means is that Care in itself is highly under-prioritized in our societies, something that can clearly be seen in the many cases of negligence and lack of funding in many care facilities. We are as a species underdeveloped in our ability to care for others (as well as ourselves and the planet).

We live in a world that does not prioritize what is Best for All – that in fact demotes the people who work for what is Best for All, and as such stand in direct opposition to creating a world (and an education system) that is Best for All. By implementing a Guaranteed Living Income System that in fact is founded upon the principle of always choosing what is Best for All, caring will be a basic fundamental priority as it is embedded directly into the very notion of what is Best for All and in the practical policies developed therewith. By bringing caring into the forefront of a political and economic (and educational) system, we can no longer deny or ignore the suffering of others. We can no longer justify the exploitation of some for benefit of others. We can no longer push and pressure ourselves to only excel and not consider the consequences of our thrusting through the earth. Finally we no longer need to compete, deceive and fight each other to survive.

In relation to care work Folbre and England emphasizes this capability as one that benefits all and as such is Best for All. Within this they bring up an interesting perspective, that there perhaps are other ways to make care work more valuable for society and in this they wish to challenge neoclassical definitions of human capital. Instead they suggest collective strategies for example within using taxes or policies to create inputs that emphasizes care as a capability.

In the development of an Guaranteed Living Income System, we are researching and developing policies based on the practical and physical capabilities that each human being requires to live a dignified life and the implementations of such policies in our society, based on what is Best for All at a practical, physical level. It is open for anyone to participate, anyone who is willing and interested in creating a world, where children can thrive and learn how to support themselves and the earth to live a life of self-expression, dignity, care and enjoyment – a life that in all ways will be Best for All.


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