Education appears untheorised in Amartya Sen's writings about the capability approach. In a brief section in the closing chapter of Development as Freedom the contrast is drawn between human capital theory, long the dominant trend in analyses of education in the third world, with human capability:
the substantive freedom of people to lead the lives they have reason to value and enhance the real choices they have.(Sen 1999: 293)
Sen describes the way human capital theory and the capability approach emphasise different elements of what is valued. Within a framework of human capital there is a narrow conception of the contribution of education to a limited range of indirect benefits for individuals, for example improving production or family income over generations.
The notion of capability, however, implies a larger scope of benefits from education which includes enhancing well-being and freedom of individuals and peoples, improving economic production and influencing social change (Sen 1999: 293–6). The problematic, but unstated, assumption in this passage and repeated in Sen's writing on education in India with Jean Drèze (Drèze and Sen 1989; Drèze and Sen 1995; Drèze and Sen 2002) is that the form of education linked with substantive freedom can unproblematically be equated with schooling. As stated, it is implied that evaluating only a very limited range of functionings that relates to the domain of schooling, such as enrolment and retention or a narrow notion of literacy, capabilities relating to education can be metonymically assessed.