Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. by Medill DC

“There’s this quote from Maimonides I like. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. If there are no fish, that doesn’t matter. We’re here today to make sure there are fish.”

I’ve featured American politicians in this space before, including John McCain and Hillary Clinton. What’s important to note is that even if you don’t agree with someone’s politics, you can still learn tremendous lessons from them and they can still offer profound insights. Such is the case today with former comedian and current Minnesota junior Senator Al Franken.

We’ve heard the first part of that quote many times before. If you only give a man a fish, he will only eat for a day, because you are only providing him with a single day’s worth of sustenance. If you teach the man to fish, however, you are providing him with the skills and knowledge needed in order to acquire more fish on his own. Thus, he is able to feed himself for a lifetime.

In this way, learning a skill is far more valuable than if someone simply gives you a handout. That’s the argument for adult education and job training in lieu of (or as supplementary to) welfare payments. This is also the mindset that we may want to take with our children, preparing them to take care of themselves as self-sufficient individuals rather than as our lifelong dependents.

But in the quote above, Al Franken points out something very important. Teaching someone how to fish isn’t going to be all that useful if there are no fish to catch. This can be interpreted two different ways, both equally profound.

First, teaching someone a skill that will become obsolete in the very near future isn’t very practical. Most of us don’t need to know how to use Morse code, because we can just send e-mails to one another on our smartphones. Most of us don’t actually need to know how to catch a fish, because we can just buy one in the supermarket.

Second, diminishing, destroying or eliminating the available resources for future generations is inherently harmful. What’s the point of knowing how to fish if there are no fish for you to catch? This is one of the biggest arguments for fighting climate change, for instance, because we want to ensure that future generations still have a (relatively) healthy planet on which to live and one that they can continue to protect.

Ideally, our legacy should be such that we leave the planet as a better place than the one that we inherited from previous generations. We want the future to be brighter than our past. And for that, we need fish. Let’s not only teach our kids how to fish, but make sure there are plenty of fish for them to catch… or buy at the market.

Image credit: Medill DC