Sufficientarians believe that every citizen in a society should receive an adequate level of education. Educational adequacy, for sufficientarians is capped at the school level. It has attracted much attention and criticisms from other scholars, most notably, from the theorists of educational equality. In this paper, I strive to argue for a sufficientarian principle for higher education (HE), one that builds upon Satz’s educational adequacy. Though this paper, I find that the revised sufficientarian principle, is better and fairer than its predecessor.

Keywords: Sufficientarian, Educational Adequacy, Educational Equality, Fairness

Word-count: 4,608


Debra Satz believes that education ought to be interpreted in relation to equal citizenship1: One is entitled to an adequate level of education that a state provides if he is a citizen of this country. Her account is sufficientarian for she believes that every citizen should receive an adequate level of education, and it is sufficient for the government to ensure that everyone has received so. Educational Adequacy (EA), thus, is non-comparative, for it does not depend upon the equality of resources between citizens, or equal development of children’s potential. In other words, so long as one is a citizen of a country, regardless of factors such as income, class, gender and so on (that might otherwise affect one’s access to education especially in a capitalistic society), everyone children should, at least, received the adequate level of education.

EA contrasts with other egalitarian positions, namely that of the educational Equality (EE). There are three types of EE, according to Satz: 1) nondiscrimination2; 2) horizontal equity3; and 3) vertical equity4. Satz rejects these three types of EE on different grounds. Importantly, against the theorists of EE, she notes that the equality of opportunity for talent development leads to inequality of opportunities in the development of the potentials of their children5.

EE is often known for its comparativeness: we access equality normally by seeing if others have received the same level of welfare to ourselves. EA contrasts with EE, for it does not require the comparison with other people. Non-comparativeness is perhaps what makes Satz’s proposal efficient, as it is more likely to provide policymakers with a clear guideline whilst also preserving some egalitarian spirits.

In light of Satz, I believe that higher education ought to be provided, in a similar fashion to EA. In this paper, I strive to argue for a sufficientarian principle for higher education (HE), one that builds upon Satz’s EA. The revision is simply by alleviating the current level of sufficiency in EA onto the level of HE. The revised principle of EA: EA’ preserves the key benefits of EA, while being responsive to some EE theorists. Practically, the demand for EA’ is most notable in more expenditure onto HE. The duty of the government is to devote an increased proportion of fundings onto HE. This, for the simplicity of the argument, will be assumed in the essay when I denote “support” or “subsidy”.

I shall proceed, firstly, by arguing the reasons why we should treat the HE more seriously by establishing firstly that, HE as a part of the education system serves the same aim as the school-system. Next, I argue that there the HE, different to school, deliver more values that are unique and distinctive. Contrary to that popular belief that the HE ought to be voluntary, I provide reasons why that it should be incorporated into a new principle of sufficiency. Later, I show that EA’ is a fairer principle than EA by engaging with egalitarian criticisms towards EA.

Treating the HE More Seriously.

For many, it might be odd to consider HE and education (in general) separable. Ordinarily, we are likely to think of the HE as the peak of one’s education career: quite often, whether one can successfully progress onto HE requires roughly two decades of personhood. For many people, it is significant for them to live a meaningful life. Since we are young, we are guided by people, and factors all around us to live a meaningful life6. While the standard of meaningful differs from one to another, but education is a conventional way in which people rapidly develop themselves, acquire the skillsets they need to realise their own meaningful life7. Education, thus, has remained a heated topic in the public domain, for any change in the provision of which can have drastic impacts on people’s abilities to achieve a meaningful life. Importantly, more attentions are attributed to education at a younger age, quite plausibly, because the education proceeding is chronological: one typically proceed by following the Elementary-Secondary-Tertiary chain. If one develops positive attitudes, personalities and values towards their respective lives at a young age, then, the positives tend to reciprocate within his life. The development, however, can be seen at any stage of the chain of education. Values are transferrable in many spheres of one’s life, whether it’s positive or negative. It is thus, crucial to develop positive values at the beginning, rather than the negative ones. For example, if one has the virtue of being humble since he is very young and continues to remain so in his life, then he is likely to be successful in education: he is more likely to be respected when raising a question, therefore he might be more likely to acquire new knowledge that he otherwise would unable to do so.

Much of scholarly research has been devoted to school-education. The devotion is justified, I think, only to the extent that education is a chronological proceeding. HE is often treated as the next-step of school-education. For Barnett, however, he thinks that universities and colleges (i.e. the higher education system) are higher for they enable students to take a view from higher above, from and of what they have learnt in school-education8, he argues that the higher education stands out from other forms of education by apply a philosophical and historical account. John White, on the contrary, contents that there is nothing higher about (the higher education), and we only refer to a higher administrative proceedings of education in the context of HE9. The present paper is no place to debate on the linguistic usage of higher as in higher education. However, in philosophy and elsewhere, there is no consensus of whether should we be treating the HE as a superior form of education to, say, school-education.

Nonetheless, as an element of the education system, the HE has many common aims with others. For instance, Brighouse believes that there are four educational aims10:

  1. Educating for Self-Government;
  2. Educating for Economic Participation;
  3. Education for Flourishing, and,
  4. Creating Citizens.

If Brighouse is correct, then as a part of educational proceeding, HE betters students, bearing these four aims.

However, there might be other unique values of HE. These values are further realised by students of HE, owing to the previous educational proceedings. These values are usually empowering, as they enable students to improve some of their values, and as such, empower themselves. One such example is diversity. Diversity is an important value of schooling because it enables students from different societal background share communal experience of teaching. The emphasis on diversity is apparent, for example, in the work of Anderson11, Satz12. The HE, however, is able to put more emphasis on diversity13. Another example of value that HE enhances is critical thinking, examples of which can be found in the work of Ebels-Duggan14, Buchanan15.

HE graduates tend to get a higher-paid job than school leavers, because HE is a place where students can focus more narrowly on few specialities. This, as said, empowers students. But, HE institutions tend to have access to more resources given its mandates in research, as well as teaching. Schools, on the other hand, tend to have less resources, as their primary goal is to teach, not research. In this case, HEs are more capable in giving financial aids to talented students from a deprived background, whilst schools inability to do so might result in forcing the student to enter a more affordable one, which has less educational resources16. While egalitarians think differently about fairness, but one is being treated unfairly, if one is being refused equal opportunities due to no fault of his own. HE is rectifying, because it rectifies some unfairness, possibly, resulted from the school-system.

Appealing as they may be, unique values of HE in the senses of empowering and rectifying, joined by the typical values one receives from education-might still be insufficient to motion for increased support in HE. One might argue, of course, that one need not enrol the HE to enhance their skills17. There are, of course, values that are only distinctive of HE.

If the HE is Voluntary, Why Should We Subsidies it Anyways?

The distinctive values of HE, refers to those that can only be realised if one has been through it, independent of one’s school experiences. Brighouse argues that HE graduates are not only better off in terms of their increased income and enhanced life prospects; but they also get to enjoy university18. In what he calls self-exploration, Brighouse believes that university is a great place for school graduates to undergo a process in which they are made to see their capacities, wishes more clearly. It is through the process of self-exploration, for Brighouse, one knows better what his interests are, and the plausibility of his goals.

One might disagree with Brighouse, for they think that process like the self-exploration can be achieved elsewhere. One can quit being a plumber if he does not feel like working for it. Gutmann believes that learning for its own sake is important because real-world goals cannot always be best achieved directly19. For Gutmann, therefore, even if one can undergo an alike exploration process elsewhere, it is not for the love of studying that helped in exploration, rather, it is for a mean that is more direct, and more immediate (e.g. personal survival). Of course, this is not to argue that one’s survival is not important-it clearly is. But the benefit of deferred gratification20 is that it is greater than immediate gratification. Approaching difficult and not-straightforward issue is sometimes better to take a macro perspective, which can be partially granted by systematically studying for it.

One might persist into arguing against subsidising HE, as it is largely considered to be voluntary. White asserts three main differences between HE students and school students:

  1. HE students are no longer children21;
  2. HE students are primordially the ones who decide what direction their learning will take;
  3. HE students chooses HE based on consumer preference22.

I think, however, these three points can be argued against easily: while one ought to be held accountable for wrongful voluntary action that he choose to undertake-it is undeniable that any human being can intend for the wrong purpose. But acting wrongly, even intentionally, does not amount to no support for rectification. Some clarification is needed: Dworkin distinguishes between brute(pure risk) and option luck (result of gamble)23. In our case, however, it is less clear. One chooses poorly on HE might be a negative effect because of the negative effects that he received from the school education system.

Inasmuch as a choice for HE is voluntary, we cannot ignore the fact that in some cases, schools can be perceived involuntary and demanding: In his remarks about school education, John White believes that the school system looks highly counterproductive from the point of view of meaningfulness24.

The school system is counterproductive, on one hand, due to the timetabling system. For White, if students change after every 50 unites to a different academic subject, this would seem a hinderance to meaningfulness25. Further, [students’] day- to-day lives should become filled with increasingly complex pursuits of all sorts—not only academic ones—on which they can be enthusiastically engaged26. Changes like these, not only interrupt students’ concentration; however, at times, they might even be interrupted whilst concentrating on the things that they are passionate about: A regime like that can be expected to maximise their sense of involvement. Yet the actual regime to which they have to submit is one of changes of activity fixed by the bell and along a narrow gamut of traditional academic subjects27. On the other hand, for White, a curriculum which focuses on a set of pre-determined subjects might worn-off students’ interests towards studying. In this case, students may feel that they have no option other than to study. As such, students would feel miserable, even though they might retrospectively appreciate the value of school education.

Notwithstanding White’s plausible thoughts, I think, the comprehensiveness in school-level education is demanding: one might still feel miserable, not only due to the contents that they are studying; but also due to the amount of subjects needed to formulate into, what White called, ‘a rounded education’, or initiation into all the major branches of knowledge28.

Finding school education unpleasing, whether about the content and/or the quantity of subjects needed to study need not demand reassessing the school-education system only to making it seem more appealing to students. In context of education, I think, there is some grounds for paternalism, simply because students might not have possessed sufficient knowledge to understand and so to judge what is best for them. We cannot, however, then, neglect the possible detrimental effect that the flaws in school systems might have on students. As said, students might, in the foreseeable future, come to the understanding of the meaning of school-education and the much needed paternalism behind it. Setting the adequacy level only at the school-level, however, may not incentives or, even disincentives students to go to universities. Some clarification is required: one does not incentivise if he remains neutral on the matter. One disincentivises if he actively withdraws incentives. Disincentivising one to go to university is clearly wrongful for it presuppose arbitrarily that HE is not worth attending. Whilst it may be less wrongful not to incentivise, I think, only if one can successfully remain neutral on HE, having laid out all distinctive features of HE.

Towards a Sufficientarian Account of HE and Supporting the Principle of Fairness

In their critique of Anderson and Satz29, Brighouse and Swift (BH) offered three very forceful responses to sufficientarians. In what remains of this paper, I aim to reply to these responses.

Firstly, BH believes that fairness is hostile towards the uncapped inequality, post-adequacy. It is true for sufficientarians, that government need not intervene further into inequality, provided that EA is achieved. The principle of fairness demands that inequality is only permissible if it benefits the worse-off. Thus, for BH, allowing the government to not intervene is unfair, for this takes away the supposed benefits under the principle of fairness. EA’ can rectify this in two ways. First and foremost, incorporating HE into adequacy requires more resources. As such, more spending is required. Therefore, BH’s concern is lessened, at least in the short term. One immediate response would, perhaps, be regarding the beneficiaries of EA’, simply because not everyone will enter HE, eventually. Under EA’, however, students are not the only beneficiaries. the increase in HE enrolment entails the increase in HE graduates30. What this implies, however, is that there might be more chances for benefiting school-level education. There will, for instance, be more teachers, administrators, or even, engineers, to help facilitating schools. If this is true, then, EA’ is more likely than EA to benefit the those with limited or no access to schools, ceteris paribus. People outside ordinary education can also be made better-off, for example: disabled people that require special education. If there are more graduates of HE, assuming the same proportionality of subject choices, then people outside ordinary education system can also be benefitted. EA’ is appealing for the additional reciprocity, granted by HE.

HE reciprocity has further implications in light of fairness, as well. In EA’, not only will prospective students be insured access to higher education (that they aspire); but will also benefit those that are not as determined to go enter the HE, by offering them more expertise. If Satz right about how education can provide one with the necessary skills to become a good citizen in a society, then, what the HE can provide, for instance, are skillsets (e.g. critical thinking31, and qualities (e.g. humbleness, clarity32 that can better gear one towards his meaningful life. EA’ is fair, in light of meritocracy, as it provides abled students with more chances, and less abled students with a decent skillset so that they are better prepared for the future.

Secondly, BH think that the EA is also subject to the objection of leveling down, rightly made by sufficientarians. The leveling down objection in education, refers to the increased amount of resources needed to support disadvantaged students. This is unfair, for some, as it reduce the chances of the talented and abled to excel, by subjecting them to more difficulty. Under EA’, however, the force of this objection is significantly reduced. In EA, one is subject to leveling-down because the talented, and the abled, are given less resources; they might be less likely to proceed onto HE, or other means of post-education due to the decrease of their supposed amount of resources. If everyone is given a chance to HE, leveling down is less apparent as more abled students are likely to enrol more prestigious universities; while less-abled students are still entitled to the benefits of HE. On the flip-side, with EA’, talented students from a more deprived background can also put their talents to use in HE. What is appealing, for EA’, is that it provides the most serious victims of leveling-down the minimum amount needed to flourish in society while also enabling others to pursue their aspirations fairly.

The third and final point made by BH against sufficientarians is that, under EA, integration (sine qua non for the fullest achievement of adequacy 33) might be achieved quite unsuccessfully, as schools can be defected by the children of advantaged parents. In other words, students from a more deprived background might fail to integrate into the society. Thus, for BH, they find EA less attractive if the adequacy cannot be achieved fully, due to the failure of some students’ integration.

To clarify, BH never intent to overthrow theories of sufficientarian on this ground and/or other grounds. They believe that justice requires both equality and adequacy. In this case, at least, BH believes that it is not implausible to favour equality over adequacy. For them, full adequacy is demanding as it requires integration. While they would not object to the values of integration, but egalitarians such as BH argue that justice might be achieved more effectively, at some case, if it is achieved using means of equality, rather than adequacy.

Under EA’, however, the dilemma between equality and adequacy might be better tackled, as it can be made less stringent on the school-level, as the emphasis on EA’ is on HE, rather than school-education. What implies, is that it can accommodate the diversity among HE students. I cannot take credit for this, as this is not new: HE nowadays are incredibly diverse (and it might become more so), welcoming students not only from different backgrounds from within a society, but also students from other societies, cultures, as well. If integration is a concern amongst philosophers, then, I think, HE institutions are better places to prepare students for diversity in society.

One can, persist to argue that, another form of segregation might arise due to EA’: the prestigious universities might become more concentrated with abled students. It is a form of secularisation, because students from a well-off backgrounds are more likely to enrol into prestigious universities. However, even if, statistically speaking, more students from middle class and above are likely to enter prestigious university, we cannot ignore the fact that HE institutions would also welcome those with extreme talents, regardless of his background. HE might, for example, provide this student with scholarship, living expenses, and so on, to ensure that he can participate in a very rewarding journey.

Now, I shall provide some missing pieces from EA’ that I have yet to touch upon in previous sections, these tackle some other peripheral concerns that egalitarians might have. The EA’, more so than EA:

  1. Incentivises students whilst preserving necessary fair competition; One might reasonably argue that by making HE accessible to all, students might take HE for granted, causing inefficiency. The inefficient use of resources, in this case, could have been better deployed onto serving other goals, such as that of equality. I admit, there will be chances where students might not treat HE seriously. However, it is wrong, as a principle, to not take the HE seriously. One might not enjoy HE as much as others, but one cannot dismiss the values of his education, regardless of whether these values are personal, or not. As mentioned, I think, paternalism in education is much needed. EA’ incentivise more people into entering than EA; whilst, inequalities are significantly lessened. HE should not be treated as a separate career path comparing with other industries; rather, it should be treated quintessentially a form of education.
  2. Prepares students to become better citizens; For Satz, one important aim of education is to prepare the necessary citizenry skillsets to students. This includes an important threshold level of knowledge and competence. However, merely by knowing and understanding, for example, politicians, is not enough. It is significant as well, for one to be able to reflect on politicians’ messages. As said, even if one argues that skills such as critical thinking might be learned outside the institutions of the HE, but HE as a level of sufficiency can ensure that more people (for whom did not acquire the skillset necessary to participate in politics) than EA can be taught and trained to do so.
  3. Tackles equality more easily; For egalitarians like BH, they might think that the mandate for sufficientarians is only to maximise benefits (e.g. societal and/or personal). EA principle might appear to be welfare-centric, as such, one may be tempted to say that EA’ is worse than EA in that it also place too much focus on welfare. However, this need not be the case: the EA treats HE completely voluntarily, as it considers school-level education sufficient. After leaving school, one may choose to become a plumber, as his wish. However, enrolling him on HE not only ensures more training and practise of skills, that one requires to be a better citizen; graduating from the HE also means that he is (relatively) equal to a lot of people in a society. In the UK, almost 50% of the population are educated on the tertiary level34; 43.5% of adults(25-64 year-olds) are educated on the tertiary level. Ten years ago, however, only 35.54%35 of the adult population have received tertiary education. With the growth rate of approximately 1% per year since ten years ago, I think, it is insufficient to cap the sufficiency at school-level.


To conclude, I hope to have shown that the EA’ is a better and fairer principle than the EA. The sufficientarian way, I think, is the best to promote education and the values it stand for. EA’ is, of course, highly ideal. It is incredibly demanding, most notably in its demand for additional resources to be contributed. However, I hope, through this essay, have provided a possibility that is both effective and reasonably fair. The efficiency of EA’, is granted by its strong foundation in the principle of sufficiency; whilst it is also fair as it rectifies some grave concerns from other egalitarian theorists. If one remains problematic of this principle is that of practical problems, namely, the way in which we can fund the EA’; then, I think, EA’ should be held as the ultimate goal of educational development.


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  1. Satz, Debra. “Equality, Adequacy, and Education for Citizenship.” Ethics 117, no. 4 (July 2007): 623–48. doi:10.1086/518805.
  2. Nondiscrimination requires that social positions should be open to all applicants and that applicants be selected on the basis of their qualifications for the position.
  3. This refers to equal amount of funding to all students.
  4. This refers to 1) Meritocratic Equality of Opportunity (MEO), meaning that the ability of proceeding onto the next level of education (e.g. university, college) should not be dependent upon factors that are not related to his intelligence. And 2). Equal development of potential, refers to the provision of additional resources to those from a more materially-deprived background.
  5. pp. 634, see. 1.
  6. White, John. “Education and a Meaningful Life.” Oxford Review of Education 35, no. 4 (August 2009): 423–35. doi:10.1080/03054980902830134.
  7. Now, I wish to boldly take for granted that ordinary people aspire meaningful lives of some sorts. The conception of meaningful has, nonetheless, remained a very important and heated philosophical debate. However, delving into the debate on one’s conception of meaningfulness in this paper can only brush-off the topic, doing grave injustice to all the current well-established thoughts.
  8. Barnett, Ronald. The Idea of Higher Education, McGraw-Hill Education (UK), 1990.
  9. White, J. “Philosophy and the Aims of Higher Education.” Studies in Higher Education, 1997.
  10. Part 1. Brighouse, Harry. “On Education,” April 21, 2006, 1–160.
  11. Anderson, E. “Fair Opportunity in Education: a Democratic Equality Perspective.” Ethics, 2007.
  12. See 1.
  13. Gutmann, Chapter 2, “What Makes a University Education Worthwhile?” in Brighouse, Harry, and Michael McPherson. “The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice,” April 8, 2017, 1–182.
  14. Chapter 5, “Autonomy as an Intellectual Value”, Ibid.
  15. Chapter 6, “Education and Social Moral Epistemology”, Ibid.
  16. Adam Swift believes that school-selection is wrong. See Swift, Adam, Chapter 3: “What’s wrong with selection?” In How Not to Be a Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed Parent, Routledge, 2003. doi:10.4324/9780203423059
  17. See 4. White, against Barnett, suggests the possibility that one might enhance critical thinking without involving in the HE.
  18. Brighouse, Chapter 1., The Aims of Higher Education, Brighouse, Harry, and Michael McPherson. “The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice,” April 8, 2017, 1–182.
  19. pp. 25, see 8.
  20. Deferred gratification: The ideological principle which encourages individuals and groups to postpone immediate consumption or pleasure in order to work, train, invest, or gain in some other way an enhanced return at a future date. Deferred gratification is an essential principle behind capital accumulation and implicit in any system of industrialisation. Source: The Dictionary of Sociology (1998), OUP: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/deferred-gratification
  21. e.g. they have the mental capacity to decide for themselves
  22. e.g. they choose their desired options based on their preference
  23. pp. 73, Dworkin, Ronald. Sovereign Virtue, Harvard University Press, 2002. doi:10.1017/s0034670516000711.
  24. pp. 443, see 6.
  25. Ibid.
  26. ibid.
  27. ibid.
  28. pp. 431, Ibid.
  29. Brighouse, Harry, and Adam Swift. “Educational Equality Versus Educational Adequacy: a Critique of Anderson and Satz.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 26, no. 2 (May 2009): 117–28. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5930.2009.00438.x.
  30. Though the increase might not equate to the numbers of students enrolled, as students may wish to drop-out.
  31. See aforementioned White’s thoughts.
  32. See aforementioned Ebels-Duggan’s thoughts.
  33. Pp. 126, see 29.
  34. 49.2% of people in the UK have received tertiary education. OECD (2015), https://data.oecd.org/eduatt/population-with-tertiary-education.htm
  35. https://data.oecd.org/eduatt/adult-education-level.htm#indicator-chart
Categories: Essays