Deconstructing a Cliche- “Teach a Man to Fish”

When I introduced myself to the world (and by world, I mean the community that reads political blogs in Montana), I referenced that I am a rookie angler and as such, promised Don fishing metaphors. Only took the post being up twenty minutes before someone pitched the cliche I should have anticipated.

Give a man/woman/transgender a fish, feed them for a day.

Teach the man/woman/transgender to fish, feed them forever.

While I very much appreciate that Big Johansson included gender diversity in the comment. I feel that it may have been on purpose to see if I would take the “progressive bait.” And it looks like I am about to…..

A bit of context, at 30 years old, I am now just learning how to fish. This may baffle some people as I am a born and raised Montanan, and it turns out most Montanans know how to fish. I wish I had a good reason why I never learned before now, but really all I have is that the first 16 years of my life I did not like getting dirty. Once I realized how unbelievably awesome getting dirty is, I went through a fairly awkward stage of becoming the outdoorsy Montanan that most become at age 3 (or younger). But that is beyond my point. The point is that I am learning how to fish. But it is not going to feed me forever. Doubt it could even come close.

The “teach a man to fish” cliche has been around forever. Little bit of internet research and I discovered most believe it to be a Chinese proverb in origin and that the saying was coined in English in the novel Mrs. Dymond (1865). Also fun fact: Jay Z references it in “Never Change.” 

Beyond its core that education is more worthwhile than handouts, the rest of “teach a man to fish” is kinda bullshit, especially when used as a companion to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

The premise is spot on; teaching is important, skills are important, and both are critical to become self sufficient. But it begs the question, “will being taught to fish really feed you forever?” Pretty sure the answer is there is nothing in the premise to claim that knowing how to fish will feed one forever. Here’s why…

  1. You could be the most skilled fisherman in the world. If you don’t live by a source to fish for your food, you’re not fed for life, regardless of your skills. Pretty simple. 
  2. There need to be fish in whatever source you have. I grew up in Butte and Silver Bow Creek runs through the town. For those unfamiliar with Silver Bow Creek, just believe me that there are no edible fish in that creek. If we are not taking care of our water, there will be no fish.
  3. Learning to fish is great. But if you don’t have access to the materials (rod, reel, bait, etc.) your knowledge of fishing likely won’t do you any good. Without access to tools, one can’t be a carpenter. Without equipment, one can’t really farm. Without a business space, one cannot open a shop to sell goods. Meanwhile access to capital remains a significant barrier to small business owners, even after the “too big to fail” banks were bailed out by the taxpayer. (But more on my hatred of too big to fail banks later.)
  4. There is a cost associated with teaching. Maybe not a significant one in the fishing example, but cost nonetheless. Education is an investment. Yet as some in our country (and state) demand austerity, we cut off investments in infrastructure that are needed. A glowing example of this is the current impact sequestration is having on job training programs.

My conclusion is this. If you want to talk about “teaching a man/woman/transgender to fish” be my guest. It is a cliche for a reason. But actually think about what it means. If you truly want people to be able to help themselves, we need to be doing more to invest in education, in job training, in providing access to capital for small businesses. Just “knowing how” isn’t really going to cut it.

 

 

18 thoughts on “Deconstructing a Cliche- “Teach a Man to Fish”

  1. Opened my eyes, but your right, in fact I think we can take this further.

    What if that fish came from Silver Bow?

    We need on site fish inspectors for all caught fish.

  2. The saying was always a metaphor for self-reliance vs. engrained dependency. As to education do you remember the movie, Good Will Hunting? There is that scene where Matt Damon confronts the university snobs and says, ” See, the sad thing about a guy like you is, in 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re going to come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life: one, don’t do that, and two, you dropped 150 grand on a fuckin’ education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library!”

    It’s amazing how issues are overworked rather than take the simplest approach. When we build massive societal structures that need massive capital infusions we should always ask ourselves, “Are we teaching a person the life skills of self-reliance or just ingraining dependency? Self-reliant people can teach themselves to fish with minimal institutional dependency.

    • Craig, I disagree.

      I found my masters in Women’s Studies to be not only uplifting but the pinnacle of self reliance.

      • But do you think someone else could have achieved the same quality of education that you received on their own?

        I am a software developer, and I want to college to get my degree. I know for a fact that there are software developers out their that are better than I am and did not go to college. That is not meant to disparage myself- I am damn good at what I do. However, all the evidence that I have seen suggests that people get out of a thing what they put into it. If someone wants and education, and I mean TRULY wants one, they will find a way to get one, even if they can’t go to school to do it.

        To use another cliche, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

        That’s not to say college is a waste; rather, it’s to point out there are always alternate routes for those willing to look.

  3. First of all their is no “ingrained dependency,” Craig. Those are the “Code words” of a broken party, that believes that Mitt Romney was right that 47% of the people in this country are takers…..

    There is however real words called co-dependency vs. Interdependency do you understand what those mean? You know the “No man is an Island,” or it “Takes a village” meme.

    Yeah I thought not, Not visible in your rose colored vision….

    Most republicans don’t reality, because they want a simpler reason to cling too, and “Takers” is an easier word to swallow. than having to fix what is broken, roll up your sleeves and look at the real causes……. “Takers” a word mostly perpetrated by a richer few, who seem unwilling to even share the knowledge of fishing, let alone the best places to fish….. or acknowledging that some people were never taught to fish in the first place.

    The government has never taught fishing because that has always been a parental moment, or a mentoring moment in family or community. The government will fund a mentor or an Organization of mentors… it however does not have the time while protecting us from war, disease, natural disasters, to teach people to fish.

    Nice try though??

  4. I’ve heard that the saying on Massachusetts fishing boats goes this way: “Give a man a fish, and you will feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you will drive him into bankruptcy.”

    And Craig, by the way, you realize that “Good Will Hunting” is fiction, right? The list of people who got a a good education the way Matt Damon did in that movie is mighty short.

      • yEP bIGGIE, They consider agriculture, a wasted venture as well, or did you not look that far. Without schools of agriculture the world wouldn’t eat …. Like I said if you believe all that you read…. you might just be part of the problem?

        Then there is art and the written word, thats right they consider both of those worthless also. Art well I don’t know how many doors of understanding that opened in the world but I would count it as priceless in our understanding of each other.

        English, without our language how would we communicate an Inch or a mile closer to our goals?

        If you didn’t have english how would you tell the leaders of our country in a letter how to be better representatives? I realize the GOP don’t like any of the aspects that communicate love, food, and understanding of Moral ground, but the article is actually flat ridiculious Biggy…. Kinda like you!

      • yEP bIGGIE, They consider agriculture, a wasted venture as well, or did you not look that far. Without schools of agriculture the world wouldn’t eat …. Like I said if you believe all that you read…. you might just be part of the problem?

        Then there is art and the written word, thats right they consider both of those worthless also. Art well I don’t know how many doors of understanding that opened in the world but I would count it as priceless in our understanding of each other.

        English, without our language how would we communicate an Inch or a mile closer to our goals?

        If you didn’t have english how would you tell the leaders of our country in a letter how to be better representatives? I realize the GOP don’t like any of the aspects that communicate love, food, and understanding of Moral ground, but the article is actually flat ridiculious Biggy…. Kinda like you

      • My undergraduate degree was called bachelor of arts select student, which means that I didn’t have to declare a major or take any specific courses except, if memory serves, one course in history and one in civics. My graduate degree is in English. I have never studied journalism, but I have practiced enough of it to know better than to rely on TV station slide shows for career advice.

  5. My son taught me this corollary, which I have always preferred. Not sure where it originated:

    “Light a Man/Woman a fire and you will keep them warm for a night.

    Light Him/Her ~ON~ fire and you will keep them warm for the rest of their life.”

  6. Light a man a fire and you’ll keep him warm for a night. Light him on fire and you’ll keep him warm the rest of his life.

    That, the old, politically incorrect, far more elegantly phrased, version, is what what I was taught and still prefer.

  7. “teach a man to fish….”

    I think that this proverbs has nothing that makes it dependent on government, or political action. Sincere teaching is simply a gift given to a fellow human in need. Charity is far more blessed than taxation. Voluntary action to lift our neighbor is immediate, direct, personal self sacrificial love which great;u bless any civilization. Taxation is compulsory, mandatory, and therefore separated from the care and love necessary to imbue the deepest meaning. Compulsion robs of the purest virtue.

    Let’s just pass the plate for our education instead of making it mandatory through taxation. People voluntarily fund what they really value.

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