Intelligent Discontent

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.



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Sheena Rice

A professional rabble rouser, Sheena is a Butte girl now calling Billings home. She loves Montana, music, politics, cheap beer and dinosaurs. She hates the big banks and pants. All of her posts are done on her own time and of her own accord and are not associated with the organization that she works for.

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