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There’s a famous adage: “If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.”
The origin of this appears to be Anna Isabella Thackeray Ritchie’s novel “Mrs. Dymond,” in which characters are discussing the theft of some lilac branches. One character thinks that lilacs should be free to everyone anyway; another complains that, if everyone took what they wanted, then “there will be only broken stalks for you and me.”
The point of the discussion is that people of privilege can either give away material resources (like lilac branches or fish) or provide spiritual gifts (like knowledge of how to fish). But this comparison misses the key issue of the scene. The issue isn’t that the peasant girl who steals the lilacs doesn’t know how to grow a lilac tree. It’s that she lacks the current resources of land, time, and a lilac tree.
The adage is used to suggest that poverty can be solved by teaching people how to succeed. It creates a false dichotomy that the two options for overcoming poverty are to provide instant-gratification handouts and to train people to succeed. That training typically comes from the outside, from an assumption that the underprivileged don’t know how to succeed.
One place where this issue is prevalent is in education reform. Organizations like Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and The Walmart Foundation offer significant donations to improving educational opportunities.
I heartily encourage benefactors to be generous. I do believe that Bill Gates is sincere in his claim of being an “impatient optimist working to reduce inequality.” That Microsoft has benefited from the positive exposure should not cynically overshadow his intent.
At the same time, though, one of the prime complaints that educators have about the Common Core State Standards, which Bill Gates championed, is that teacher input wasn’t as significant as it could have been.
They were seen as externally-imposed guidelines, and as such, even if they were absolutely perfect, they were subject to rejection by the people they were designed for.
The non-profit organization Excellent Schools Detroit, which was formed to address the persistent problem of education in the City of Detroit, dissolved this summer, having fallen short of its goals. As Chastity Pratt Dawsey explains, seven years and $32 million wasn’t enough to fix the identified problems.
According to Dawsey’s report, Excellent Schools Detroit learned two major lessons. According to Tonya Allen, CEO of Skillman Foundation, “We needed a ground game that understood how parents were making choices.” And Shirley Stancato, CEO of New Detroit, said, “I don’t think we were as collaborative as we could’ve been…. We didn’t realize until we were in the middle of it that there were other people doing some of this work.”
With due respect to these individuals and their organizations, neither of these lessons are earth-shaking. They are both obvious to most educators on the ground. They could have saved a lot of time and money if they’d talked deeply to teachers and truly listened to responses.
The implication present in the approaches often taken by well-intentioned philanthropist groups focused on education reform is that the problem is that teachers and administrators don’t know what they’re doing.
Most professionals involved in the daily grind of public education, though, wouldn’t put adeptness of the educators high on the list of problems to be fixed.
To be sure, low wages continue to drive many competent would-be educators to other fields, and there are teacher shortages around the country. However, the majority of teachers that I interact with daily are competent, passionate, and committed.
We know how to fish. We don’t need someone from the outside telling us how to hold our rod and reel.
To switch metaphors for a moment, Eddie Murphy relates a joke in the credits for “Coming to America.” A customer has a complaint about his soup, and tells the waiter to try it. Rather than trying the soup, the waiter posits what could be wrong with it. After repeated demands from the customer, the waiter finally agrees to try the soup and asks for the spoon. “Aha!” is the entire punchline.
Teacher morale is a consistent problem, and drivers of this include a lack of resources and excessive pressure from outsiders, particularly legislators who devise rigorous teacher assessment models. One of the most widely used teacher assessment models is the Charlotte Danielson rubric, even though Danielson herself has asked that it not be used for that purpose.
If I were going to devise a national organization for education reform, my first step would be to speak directly to a wide swath of teachers and really listen to what they have to say. Luckily, there’s no shortage of educators who maintain blogs about their profession, but many teachers are justifiably concerned about speaking up publicly.
My second step would be to speak directly with parents in the communities I want to target, and again, really listen to what they have to say. Parents and teachers are the key stakeholders in the education of youth (other than the youth themselves), and yet conversations with them are often lacking in depth or understanding.
A major part of the problem, though, is being truly open-minded. Earlier this year, I wrote about the White Savior complex: I originally approached urban teaching, some six years ago now, as if the problem was something that could be solved by a savvy outsider. The reality is far more complex.
Imagine you saw a person standing in a river, trying to catch fish with his bare hands as they swim by. You adjust your rods and your tackle box on your shoulder and offer to teach him how to fish. He glares at you and says, “I know how to fish.” So you put your rod and box in the bushes by the river (you wouldn’t want them to get stolen) and join him in the river, hands at the ready.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to lend him a fishing rod?
There are certainly problems in public education right now, even if some of them have been exaggerated to justify rechanneling funds to other things. And they can’t be solved by money alone, but that doesn’t mean money won’t be a help.
The money and other resources need to be spent wisely. Instead of assuming that teachers are incompetent until proven otherwise (often with arbitrary assessment methods), assume that teachers are competent but lack resources and support.
This article has been about education because as a teacher that’s the arena I understand the best. However, the metaphor can be applied to other areas as well. For instance, Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback, has been handing out suits to parolees. Getting a job as an ex-convict is hard enough, but getting a job as an ex-convict without a suit is even harder. Meanwhile, former President Jimmy Carter continues to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity into his 90s.
Maybe the problem with the hungry man isn’t a lack of knowledge, it’s a lack of tools. If he already knows how to fish, give him a rod and reel and a spot on the riverbank, and then get out of his way.
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