The “fishing parable” and the surprising failings of careers education

“Give a man a fish and he can feed his family for a day, teach a man to fish and he can feed his family for a lifetime.”

So the parable goes, it’s a parable often articulated around education in general and more specifically around careers education. It tends to rear its head when someone wants to argue against a short term, placement based, results driven model of careers education and argue for a more expansive view of careers education. The outcome of careers education shouldn’t be clients getting jobs but being able to keep on getting jobs even when they move away from the support your service provides. It’s about lifelong skills for career management/ employability etc.

This is good as far as it goes, I want to say it is definitely better to help people gain skills for life over just taking the next step and receiving a “positive outcome”. I also feel it is significantly harder to achieve and in my own practice I feel a long way off any sense of actually delivering the ideal. That said I feel there is a massive and significant shortcoming because their is a big question that is not asked in this narrative. Let us return to the river bank…

Ever asked yourself why is the man in the situation that he needs to be fishing to feed his family (I appreciate whoever came up with the parable didn’t ask this and I am breaking the bounds of the parable)? The parable at least implies whoever comes and teaches him to fish is in a better lot than him, how is this so? Isn’t the man entirely dependent on the supply of fish? What if they dry up? I don’t fish myself, I buy my fish from a supermarket, why can’t he do the same? Is just having a meal of fish everyday for his family enough, shouldn’t we want more for him? How do you feel or think of the man? Do you assume he is of a different nationality than you (African)? How do you feel about him being a man and what his position might say about gender?

The question I want to raise is that the man’s situation is one embedded in a network of relationships of power. What part could careers education play in helping him realise this and act in a way that enabled him to re-position himself inside these networks and potentially with the help of others challenge and reform these networks? Power is a crucial perspective on how we understand ourselves and the world around us and not just that we are acted on by powerful entities but that in turn we ourselves have the potential to act especially by pooling our resources with others.

I am not raising these issues because I am particularly political and want careers work to be more so but because I see power and the political as vital parts of how we properly understand ourselves and the world of work.

I would see four main ways that power interacts with how we support clients, I feel it is an important thing for practitioners to do to consider how they want to make use of these different power structures.

  1. Deploying power – This is using our power for someone else. Classic examples of this are placement support (sourcing opportunities, checking applications etc.) and testing based forms of guidance. These activities involve us using our power for the good of someone else. These change someone’s circumstances but neither increase their power nor change the networks of power they are situated inside. This often appears to be the best way of achieving institutional targets as it gives us the best control but in the long term can be detrimental to the individual and society in general as the client has simply becoming dependent on a service which they may no longer be able to access.
  2. Drawing on power – This involves drawing on latent power someone has to change their circumstances but probably not their situation in the networks of power they are part of. This sees the individual as a battery powered torch that is switched off. Here we help and support a client towards achieving a task for themselves. The capacity to act and behave differently is developed and they become independent of our support. Classic examples are guidance/ career counselling/ coaching appointments and reflective assignments on a module. It should be noted that often the implicit question here is “what can you do to take responsibility for your future?” Wider networks of power are not considered.
  3. Resisting power – Resisting power involves some form of discussion about oppression. Oppression is about using resources to benefit myself over others, which can include making use of more resources than I need. Resisting power is about uncovering how these power networks affect me and moving towards acting differently inside them. For me a properly critical understanding of the world of work and human identity will aim to unearth how oppression happens and help people to resist these practices in their own lives. This may involve considering the environmental impact of my career, how corporate structures encourage competition over collaboration, how minorities are sidelined by various structures. Resisting power is about uncovering these power relationship and asking “how can I make sure I am not part of this?” It is about challenging people to live more generous lives. Often this starts with uncovering and exposing power structures. Work with students would involve in any given setting asking them moral and political questions about themselves and the world of work (rather than just developmental ones). This may appear a challenge to the traditional Rogerian perspective many careers workers take as it considers that individuals may experience a false consciousness, being unable to see the political nature of reality and how inequalities and oppression exists. But I feel from an educational point view we provoke and bring forward new perspectives as much as we aim to work with clients existing perspectives.
  4. Challenging power – In G. A. Cohen’s seminal essay Why not socialism? he argues that often the reason that generosity does not exist is not that the individual in unwilling to be generous but unable to be generous due to structures that are in place. You can dispute how willing to be generous people naturally are but the point still holds that we are limited by power structures to be generous to others in many ways. Noticing the plight of homeless people around my town there is only so much I can do to be generous to them, I can not completely change their situation. Sometimes resources are kept away from others in a way that point 3 (above) can not correct. At this point we may need to collectivise action to overcome some forms of oppression. This is clearly moving into the realms of the explicitly political but the world of work is political by nature and so a truly critical careers education will embrace this form of criticality. As the work of Rie Thompson has articulated their is a legitimate question for communities to ask of “how does this affect us” and “what do we want together.” I feel there is a place in helping individuals see how they are connected to other individuals and what they can achieve together for the greater good.

Now you may not agree with the above narrative, I am obviosuly giving away some of my political views and not everyone will agree with these. I feel though there is a primary question that is vital for us to be asking as a careers community. Why is that man fishing on the river bank? What are the forces that have led him to where he is? How can helping him to understand his position benefit him and society at large? I feel what the fisherman parable provokes is a call for a wider focus for the range of learning outcomes related to careers education.


7 thoughts on “The “fishing parable” and the surprising failings of careers education

  1. Thank you for this Tom. I’ve meant to respond to a number of your blogs in the past but this one was irresistible!

    I have been in ‘careers’ and education in one form or another for over 30 years. When I chose to be a careers adviser all those years ago it was precisely the issues you identify here that led to my choice. I did the Trent Poly (as it was then) course and it was a life-changing and challenging experience. We were called on to be ‘change agents’ and it was inspiring to many of us involved. Recently I became despondent, thinking that this view of careers work and careers education and guidance in particular was rapidly disappearing. So here I am today, reading your article and feeling grateful that there are people like you encouraging a wide and indeed political analysis of the work we do.

    By the way, the practice of preparing people in ’employability’ is a political act in my view even if it is wrapped up in a package of competency and achievement.

    • Thanks for the comment Janet. Always grateful to receive comments. Sorry to head about you feeling despondent and so I’m glad you find the blog useful on some level. I think keeping enthusiasm for the profession going is never easy, I sometimes find it hard even in my short career! Thanks for your thought about employability being political. Completely agree, I guess its more of a directing use of power than an enabling use of power. Thanks again!

      • Well now, that’s an invitation not to be missed!
        I think you have it in a nutshell Tom. The interesting bit to me is who is deciding on the directing and what are the assumptions being made around that directing? I have my own view on this and guess what? It’s political!

  2. Hi Tom. Firstly, I think you are jumping to some enormous conclusions in your interpretation of what is simply an adage and nothing to do with a man fishing or a parable. I draw from the adage that if we as Career Practitioners do things for someone, they will be dependent on us to continue to do things for them. However, if we help others learn how to do things for themselves, they will always be able to rely upon themselves. I’m not sure it can become any more complicated than that. Cheers, Bill

    • Hi Bill. Thanks for commenting. As a I said in the article I do understand the original meaning of the adage is as you describe I was merely using a well know saying as a launching off point to consider how politics is a often avoided aspect of careers work.

  3. Hello Tom – as a Newfoundlander – when you teach a man to fish, you should also teach him to manage the resource in a co-operative framework with the others who are also availing thereof. Elsewise, that parable becomes subject to the economic theory ‘Tragedy of the Commons’

    On to the politics of your point. I am the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers (CACEE) and we work work within the school to work transition space. We have in this country a dysfunctional relationship between our universities and the society that supports them. ‘Society’ (meaning students, parents, employers, government) has an implied, or even explicit, expectation that universities will prepare graduates to be functioning members of that society – to be good citizens. In our social structures, being a good citizen means contributing to the society in a way that produces good / goods for the society through employment. Universities, however, do not believe that they have a mandate here, and representatives of the sector have denied a responsibility for what they call employment training. Faced with ongoing budget pressures, many universities are cutting back on the career supports they have offered to students, even as those supports are needed and called for more than at any other time in memory. Our universities are laying off the professionals who might ‘teach a student to fish.’

    • Hi Paul. Thanks lots for commentating. Your point about working in a co-operative is very interesting.

      On your other point we are in a very different situation in the UK. Unis are investing lots into careers but a focus on short term measures often means we don’t do enough to prepare students for the long term.

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