Should businesses sell fish or teach fishing?

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed for him for a lifetime. —Chinese proverb
Catch a man a fish, and you can sell it to him. Teach a man to fish, and you ruin a wonderful business opportunity. —Karl Marx

I used to really stand by the old Chinese proverb on fishing. When it came to human progress, I would think in terms of sustainability: what’s going to create a lasting impact on the quality of life for the human race–and stick for generations to come?

Human progress, to me, isn’t about simply increasing the good experiences and reducing the bad experiences of the human race. It’s about ensuring those good experiences will continue to increase, and those bad experiences will continue to decrease.

That’s why a business that creates a dependency in its customers never really appealed to me. Customers may gain good experiences by buying from the business, but often they end up dependent upon the service or product for their happiness and are unable to provide the service or product for themselves.

This is part of the beauty of capitalism of course: it means we don’t need to know how to do everything ourselves but can hire other people to do things for us, creating a tit-for-tat society of specialized products and services.

I thankfully don’t have to learn advanced engineering and programming to build my own iPhone, and I thankfully don’t have to perform open-heart surgery on myself.

But when it comes to education, something seems bizarre about providing knowledge and information to others but not cultivating in them the ability to learn things on their own. But this is how it often is in education: many educators simply issue out texts and textbooks for students to memorize; they rarely teach students how to build their own knowledge and one day contribute to textbooks themselves.

I think the reason education differs from ordinary commodities is because its ideal function is to create full, functioning human beings with skills and abilities to go out into the world and confront its many challenges with confidence and competence. And that’s a goal in the service of sustainable human progress.

But is it a sustainable business model? How do you get returning customers? It seems like, as an educator, in the ideal case, you don’t want your customers to return. You want them to feel like they don’t need you anymore. Unfortunately, that might not be so great for gaining a continual flow of cash from your customers, i.e., your students.

Maybe education is a sustainable model for human progress, but not a sustainable business model.

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