TCS Daily

The Un-Education of Lee Harris

By Lee Harris - September 26, 2003 12:00 AM

You often hear about men who are self-taught, some of whom achieve quite staggering degrees of erudition through their intense personal dedication to learning. But seldom do you hear about men who are self-untaught; and this is why I want to share with you my own experience. For my peculiar boast is, not that I educated myself, but that I succeeded in what may well be a much more difficult task: I uneducated myself, though, to be sure, not all at once, but little by little, and day by day.


Not that I should really take any credit for this, because I did not set out to do any such thing. How could I? Back then, like all other Americans, I held fast to the illusion that more formal education is always better for a society than less, and that a man educated by a university is invariably the intellectual superior of the man who has dropped out of high school. (And if you doubt the universality of this illusion simply consult the opinion of the next fellow you meet on this question, for whether he has a PhD from Harvard or left school halfway through the third grade, he will readily accede to the truth of this assertion.) It may no longer be the case, as Aristotle tells us at the beginning of his Metaphysics, that all men by nature desire to know; but it is certainly true that all men nowadays desire to have a piece of paper that proves to the world they know. And how, it may be asked, could we possibly get along in our society without these omnipotent pieces of paper?


Imagine, for a moment, all the trouble involved in discovering for yourself whether someone else was genuinely intelligent: you would have to talk to him, to watch the way he makes decisions, to follow closely his child-rearing practices, to examine the way he operates his business. You would need to eaves-drop on his most intimate conversation, to learn the kind of advice he gives to his best friend in a time of need, or how he responds to a crisis in the life of his grown up children. My God, you would have to decide for yourself whether his conduct showed genuine wisdom or unadulterated folly; and, worst of all, to do this you must first be wise yourself.


The problem with wisdom is that it is not certifiable. You cannot prove that you possess it by scoring high on a standardized test, or by having taken a set of required courses. Indeed, a good rule of thumb is this: If it can be taught, it is not wisdom.


But it gets worse. For what I had to discover on my own was not only that wisdom cannot be taught, but that what little wisdom one has to begin with -- and we always have some -- may in fact be crushed beneath an avalanche of too much learning. In which case the only remedy is to try to dig one's way out. And this, let me assure you, is not an easy process.


In fact, I am quite convinced that I would never have been able to burrow my way to the surface except through a set of serendipitous circumstances, whose details I will omit, but which culminated in my ownership of a very small business.


It was not, I hasten to add, one of these agreeably sophisticated small businesses, like designing computer software or merchandizing chic and trendy trifles; no, it was a bluest of blue collar businesses, a window tinting shop located in a suburb of Norcross, Georgia. And it was here, in this unexpected locale, that the long and arduous journey of my un-education began, nearly fifteen years ago.


At that time window tinting was a relatively new line of business, and because of its novelty, it possessed none of those settled habits that you find in established enterprises. It was, in comparison with the tamely genteel and sedately risk-free life of a large corporation, far more like an outpost in the wilderness in which one must expect each day to be overwhelmed by sudden attacks from prowling grizzlies or marauding savages. Competition was cut-throat; and your own employees would often betray you in a heart beat.


Now what had equipped me to deal with all of this?


Well, I had an extremely strong background in German idealism, mathematical logic, and Greek culture, though none of this was as much use to me as one might have thought. But, thank heavens, I had thoroughly mastered Karl Marx's Das Kapital, and it was this that saved me.


Now, of course, I am aware that Marx did not originally intend his immense work to be employed as a long-winded Capitalism for Dummies. But this, I must confess, is how I used it; and the message from Marx was loud and clear. If my business was to make a profit, I had to exploit members of the working class.


This is not as bad as it sounds. For in Marx's theory, exploitation, though a vicious word, in fact describes a process that is far from being inherently vicious: it simply means that if one of my window tinters tinted a car for $200, then I could not turn around and hand him all of this $200, but would have to keep some of it from him. Part of this amount would go to pay overhead, and what was left would be profit.


Sounds simple, doesn't it? Yet this simplicity is deceptive, like the advice offered in the old joke about how to make a million dollars: First buy a million sheep for a dollar a piece, and then sell them for two. Because, you see, all the people that I could find who were competent enough to tint windows for me were also competent enough to realize that whenever they tinted a car for $200.00, they got a good deal less back for their labor than their labor was worth -- and they were able to put this all together even without having spent years laboring over Das Kapital.


But that was only half of it. The other half was that all of these workers whom I so desperately needed to exploit were quite capable of exploiting themselves. There was absolutely nothing to keep them from deciding to go into business for themselves, in which case, instead of handing over the $200.00 per car to me, they could simply put it into their own pockets -- minus, of course, the overhead.


You don't have this problem when you are running General Motors. A disgruntled employee cannot say, "I've had it. I'm going to start my own automobile company." But a disgruntled window tinter can indeed say this, and they often do. In fact, the only capital requirement for entering into the window tinting business was enough money to buy yourself a box of tint -- and this, at the time, meant an outlay of less than a hundred dollars.


It was this brutal fact that governed the life of every tint shop in the United States, and every owner had the same complaint. If you hired someone off the street to work for you, and trained him how to tint, what was to keep him from taking this training and opening up a shop right across the street from yours -- as often happened, especially when there was bad blood between the former employee and his former employers?


Which brings me to the moral of my story.


Quite by accident, and without the slightest intention to do so, I had stumbled into a situation where I would experience first-hand the fundamental problem of politics: How to get men to cooperate with you when they don't have to. Or, to put it another way, How do you lead men who really don't need to have a leader -- or, at the very least, who are convinced that they don't really need one? Fickle fate had, for reasons known only to itself, provided me with a marvelously transparent model of how politics really works, much the way an ant farm instantly discloses to the inquiring eye the structural relationship of a colony of ants.


How to coax men into agreeing with each other long enough to get anything accomplished is a topic to which intellectuals seldom give a thought; and certainly before I had to confront these questions on a daily basis, I had never given it much thought, either.


Men cooperate in society because it is in their interest to do so -- that is the standard answer that intellectuals are apt to give to the fundamental question of politics. Yet, as I quickly realized, this was a radical case of putting the cart before the horse. It may be true that when men cooperate, all are benefited, but this is a truth that can become apparent to them, if it becomes apparent to them at all, only after they have been persuaded to cooperate, and not before.


The reason for this became clear to me only through the experience of running my business. Because the very first step on the path of cooperation requires the individual on this path to renounce his own freedom of action. Cooperation in our shop demanded that the cooperating individuals had to give up all sorts of rights and privileges: they could not decide on the price charged for the work that they were doing; they could not decide on how much of this price went into their pockets; they could not decide when to stop working, or how early in the morning they needed to get there.


But then neither could I -- at least, not entirely. Because, as I have already pointed out, it was utterly impossible for me to treat my employees as if they had no other alternative except to obey my fiats. And this entailed that the only modus operandi that would work at my shop was one that required continual compromise and mutual adjustment on both my part and on the part of my employees.


I realized that if I was to act as a leader, I first had to be trusted as a leader; and this required me not only to pretend to be interested in the welfare of my employees, but to actually be interested in it. I came to understand that what holds a community of individuals together is not a set of shared beliefs or ideals -- these in fact more often divide than unite -- nor even common interests, but rather a concrete and living nexus of interpersonal trust and faith. Social cohesion emerges from the camaraderie of doing, and is never the result of some pre-existing ideological unanimity. Men do not cooperate by first giving their intellectual consent to cooperate, but because they have found other men whom they trust enough, on a person-to-person basis, to be willing to work with, and who, in their turn, are willing to work with them.


None of this, however, is apparent to those whose experience of interpersonal cooperation has taken place within the capacious and comfortably stable universe of our great white collar institutions -- multinational corporations, universities, traditional churches, and, of course, the government. Here there is a pre-existing order that is already so taken for granted that no one any longer wonders how such feats of human organization could ever have come about. One is trained simply to fit into them; and for this a college education is the perfect preparation, since most of the decisions that one will be called upon to make in the day-to-day operation of such flourishing concerns will be decisions that can be made by the book, so that seldom, if ever, will an individual be called upon to make decisions that risk the very existence of the enterprise in question.


But this is not the case with the business that I had to manage, where simply deciding on the size of next year's yellow page ad could easily be a matter of life-and-death to the company -- one too large would drain us of our profit, one too small might keep us from having any. In the day-to-day struggle to stay afloat, the "book" proved irrelevant, and what had to substitute for it was gamble and guess work.


It does not take very much of this kind of thing to make you realize how difficult it must have been for human beings to have ever started on any kind of cooperative effort of any importance whatsoever, be this the founding of a company or of a state. And it did not take much for me to realize how distorted most intellectuals' perspective will inevitably be whenever it is a question of establishing a viable and self-sustaining political order out of the chaos and anarchy of individual human wills.


I wish sometimes that many of those men who are guiding our nation today had had an experience similar to my own, and of none is this more true than several of those decent, good, and well-meaning neo-conservative intellectuals whose geo-political visions are founded on their own quite different set of life experiences -- men who have spent their entire lives under the protection of great corporations, from the wonderful institutions of higher learning in which they have studied and taught, to the superbly organized business enterprises that they have managed and guided; and who have subsequently, and quite naturally, come to believe in an inherently rational human nature that spontaneously inclines to cheerful cooperation.


Life in a window tinting shop is much different from the life that these men all too often take for granted, and much closer to the life that has been lived by the average man on this planet from time immemorial -- a fact that should be born in mind by anyone who wishes to rebuild nations from scratch.


Luckily, I was able to survive in my business despite the handicaps of six or seven years of post-graduate work; though I suspect that this had more to do with the abstruse nature of my field of study than with any particular aptitude I had for un-educating myself. Overcoming seven or eight years of post-graduate work in logic and metaphysics is child's play compared to the challenge I would have faced had I possessed a Master Degree in Business Administration.



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