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Fishing rods and sparrows

Published on March 18, 2011 by: in: Society

Trite slogan, according to which in order to successfully help you have to give a fishing rod instead of fish, summarizes the main feature of liberal thinking about social policy – conviction that it is allowed to equalize opportunities but not to give away goods, which normally have to be worked for. This attitude is pragmatic (fishing rod given once costs less than constant providing fish) as well as ideological: a chance to take care of one’s own life strengthens one’s subjectivity and constitutes a value itself. This value is proved by the unsaid – but logically inevitable – point of the metaphor of fishing rod: if one is lazy or clumsy and despite having a fishing rod does not catch any fish, the worse for him – let him starve if he did not use his chance.


This brutal ending is politically incorrect but it shows main weak point of the liberal prescription. If it was said aloud, fear that they will not manage to deal with the fishing rod would scare off from the liberal solutions everyone who is not very confident. Only those who in case of failure would prefer to get fishing rods, not fish, can be honest and true supporters of such a solution. People who do not have any strong preference have to be convinced by the whole array of various propagandist tricks: prove that fishing does not require luck, effort or skills; convince that there will be always someone who within private charity will share what he catches himself, finally – implicate that there will be more than this one fishing rod and that even somebody without any talent will find the model which will make it possible to find food. All this consolations are not worth much. If the first one was true, fish (or whatever it is supposed to represent) would cease to be the scarce good and it could be given away instead of fishing rods. The second one ignores key observation – made among others by Hobbes and Kant –that the assumption of human kindness is too uncertain to build a social order on it. The third suggestion undermines the pragmatic character of the liberal prescription: constant giving away fishing rods cannot be cheaper than giving away fish.

The metaphor of fishing rods has one more crucial weakness: in the real world the border between means and purposes are vague. It would be more accurate instead of talking about fish and fishing rods to talk about grain, which similarly to fish can be eaten but also can be sown and harvested. Analytically speaking – the position we have today determines the chances in tomorrow’s race. It can be most clearly seen in the education: the better grades in the primary school, the easier it is to get into good grammar school. The better the grades in the grammar school, the easier it is to get into good high school. Good high school makes it easier to get into desired university, the graduation from which increases the chances for finding a well-paid job – even here the domino effect does not end as the first salary influences earnings in whole later professional life.

Paradoxically, having created multistage system of selection which could already at the stage of high school direct students into various, fitting their predispositions career paths, teachers and politicians do everything they can to push the biggest possible number of people into most difficult, at least in principle, path. It is obviously done at the cost of quality because if the high school – university path is supposed to be available for everyone as long as possible in the name of equal chances, it cannot be too difficult. The data of OECD summing up the changes which happened in the Polish education in the last decade indicate that there was a spectacular decrease in the number of students getting the worst results in the international tests PISA. There was a slight increase in the number of students getting the best results, but this number is still under average of OECD. The opportunities became slightly more equal in the main peloton but we cannot count on any medal in sprint – especially because, as some commentators claim, working on tails led to giving up nursing the talents and new standardized tests promote the average and they happen to harm geniuses.

On the other hand the standardized tests make it possible to compare quality of education in various schools, which is the first step to improve it where it is the worst. It becomes possible then to reduce the differences between schools in the cities and in the villages, in bad and good districts. Hundreds of at least averagely educated young people benefit from it when they can get away from misery surrounding them. Among all the known mechanisms of stratification the one based on the educational achievements seems to be the fullest reflection of liberal ideas concerning a good social order. It limits – but does not eliminate it completely – heredity of the position and contrary to co-optation systems (church can serve as an example) it promotes diversity. It is individualistic – the final position of each individual depends, at least in principle, on one’s skills and effort which one put in the education – additionally it is in line with rationalistic vision of the world: the more educated individuals, the bigger the progress of humanity.

Even if it is impossible, for the reasons described above, to clearly determine what is still equalizing the opportunities and what is already interference into spontaneous order of unequal positions, providing everyone with the same access to at least primary education is a key element of liberal social policy. Is it however inevitable in the name of liberal equality of opportunities to introduce prohibition of teaching how to read in the kindergartens – which the Ministry of Education did two years ago so that all the children had the same chances in the first grade – and equalizing to the average in the grammar and high schools (and more and more often also at the universities)?

Let’s hope that not, even if discrediting such practice is more difficult than it may seem at the first glance. The first one is absurd from the point of view of curious about the world children in the kindergarten and their parents but it cannot be denied that it indeed secures the equal start for all the children in the first grade. It would be certainly better if this start was at the higher level but making – following the pattern of France – already 4-year-olds learn how to read and write is above the possibilities of democratically elected Polish government. To imagine the scale of protests which would accompany potential introduction of the kindergarten obligation it is enough to multiply five times the turmoil which happened when the government decided to sent 6-year-olds to school.

Change of the educational strategy – focusing on the best instead of the weakest students and making the exams more difficult – would not be popular either. Current system, which aims at pushing as many students as possible towards final exams in the high school rather than at ensuring the equality of opportunities, keeps the illusion: it is easy to get from one grade to another, you do not have to care for grades, until the 18th birthday everyone can look with optimism into the future. Final exam (passed by four out of five students in general and nine out of ten among students of the comprehensive high schools) confirms this positive attitude. Universities – state and private – solicit the students and usually verify carefully their skills. Value of the university diplomas is relative though – higher education became an essential condition to apply for a good job but not sufficient to get it. It leads to unemployment among graduates and frequent cases of taking a job under formal or real qualifications. The latest anecdote circulating in the media about the employer who required higher education from the worker of the warehouse perfectly illustrates the problem.

It is possible that the frustration could not be avoided also with more difficult exams and more selective educational system. It is not qualifications themselves which determine the usefulness for the society but if and how they can be used. If the demand for the graduates rises slower than the supply, their salaries which they can expect for their work will become lower, which surely does not make them happy. Isn’t the wishful thinking which we as a society adopted the core reason for their frustration? Is it possible that we want to build a ‘modern economy based on the knowledge’ so much that we massively produce workers for it failing to notice that existing companies simply do not need them? Thousands of management specialists who graduate every year from the Polish universities will find a job in their profession only under the condition that there will be anything to manage. The same can be said about the graduates from the marketing (they have to have something to sell and somebody to whom they can sell this something) or journalism: they have anything to do only if something is happening and there is somebody who wants to read or hear about it. Creating a chance for next thousands of people to become a manager, a merchant or a journalist will not reduce the structural limitations, on the contrary, it will make them even more painful for people who already now try to make a career in these professions. What is providing equal opportunities from the perspective of the society turns out to be limiting these opportunities from the point of view of an individual.

This is exactly where the main weakness of liberal suggestions concerning social or education policy comes from: hardly any voter sees them as serving his own interests. For those who already have big chances (or at least slightly bigger than average) they mean a threat to their already achieved positions. For the rest it is a vague promise accompanied by various reservations stating that all depends anyway on the person in question: ‘Are you hungry? We will give you a fishing rod, if you make an effort you will catch a fish and have something to eat’. Let’s say it honestly: an old proverb ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ is a truly accurate and rational answer to such a proposal.

Is the liberal social policy possible at all then? We will be looking for the answer to this question in ‘Liberte!’ in the next few months, optimistically believing that we will also discover how such policy should look like. Important issue in this debate – to which various experts and practitioners were invited – will be the state of Polish education because in spite of all the problems mentioned above we consider the good education to be a key to equality of opportunities and we consider equality of opportunities – again, despite everything – to be a good idea.

Translation: Martyna Bojarska

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About Krzysztof Iszkowski

Sociologist of politics. Graduate of the University of Warsaw (sociology) and Warsaw School of Economics (international relations), PhD (2008) in the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Science. A member of the Research Center on Democracy, author of Liberte!.

Fredrich Naumann Foundation For The Freedom
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