I was a child the first time I ever heard the axiom: “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for the rest of his life.” A teacher spoke it and I thought it was the most profound piece of wisdom I have ever heard. I encountered the saying many more times in college when, appropriately enough, I was studying education. I liked it then because it encouraged us to focus on trying to get people to learn how to think rather than having anyone, even me, think for them.
In the past decade I have encountered the “teach a man to fish” proverb many times and I have decided that I no longer like it. It has begun to be used almost exclusively as an argument against helping others in need. It has become the proverbial wisdom to cut social programs that help the poor and negating the social safety net. Moreover, it has been used by those with wealth to justify why they are excused from helping those in need. It has been used to express the idea that by helping people, they are actually being hurt.
The problem, as I see it, is that the two options are presented as mutually exclusive. You EITHER give a man a fish, OR you teach a man to fish. There is no in between. I agree (in theory) with each premise: “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day” – I agree; “teach a man to fish and he eats for the rest of his life” – I agree (in theory). So my problem with the maxim in theory, but I do not accept that it is EITHER the one option OR the other option, but it can be and often should be BOTH give a man a fish AND teach him how to fish.
If a person is starving and weakened, the right thing to do would be to give him a fish, so that he can eat, and have the strength to learn how to fish. Ignoring a person’s need, while teaching him to fish, is cruel. Someone completely cruel and greedy will conclude that keeping the man starving will give him incentive to learn how to fish. In fact, you can probably gauge just how self-centered and greedy you are by how quickly your mind went to the incentive argument.
The common use of the saying implies that if I know how to fish, I will always catch the fish I need, which is just not realistic, and that I will always be able to fish by remaining healthy and uninjured, which is ridiculous.
In Luke’s Gospel and in John’s Gospel, there are two separate occasions in which Peter – a professional fisherman – works all night with other professional fishermen, and they fail to catch anything. These are men who are better at fishing than anyone else because it is their job and their livelihood and even still, they endure periods of catching nothing. These men are not just a guy with a pole and hook! These are men in a fish filled sea, using huge nets and multiple boats and they catch nothing. So even when you teach a man to fish, he still may not eat. And it is not because he is lazy or refusing to work, but because in life, there are often periods when forces work against us and we face setbacks and if no one is giving them fish that day when they catch nothing, it will only take a few days like that before they are too weak to fish at all and they will starve.
Add to this the very real possibility that a fishman could be injured while fishing and, as a result, is unable to fish, even though someone has taught him how to fish. Even if he does not get injured, he will get old, and may not fish as well or reach a point where he cannot fish at all. Teaching the man to fish has not provided him with fish for the rest of his life in either of these situations.
Therefore, I still have to side with Give a man to fish while teaching him how to fish, and make sure to give him fish periodically even though he can fish because there are times when he needs help feeding himself and his family regardless of his ability and education. This is more than a just thing to do if he is giving some of his fish to others who need fish even while teaching them how to fish.
So the moral of the story is: we should all give some of our catch to each other so that we all have fish when we need it, understanding that even if we work hard at fishing, there may be times where we need help, or when we are unable to work, or that we will get old.