The following is a conversation between Profectus co-editors Ben Wilterdink and Clay Routledge with Ian Rowe, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-founder of the National Summer School Initiative and Vertex Partnership Academies, a network of character-based high schools located in the Bronx. Ian is also the author of “Agency: The Four Point Plan (F.R.E.E.) for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power.” The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ben Wilterdink: Thank you for listening to this edition of the Profectus Podcast. Profectus Magazine is dedicated to kickstarting a conversation around the key drivers of human flourishing, progress, and the barriers that prevent individuals from reaching their full potential. I’m Ben Wilterdink. And today, my co-editor, Clay Routledge, and I are joined by Ian Rowe.
Ian is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the co-founder of Vertex Partnership Academies, a network of character-based high schools located in the Bronx, and the co-founder of the National Summer School Initiative. He’s also the author of Agency: The Four Point Plan (F.R.E.E.) for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power. Ian, thank you for joining us today.
Ian Rowe: Well, Ben and Clay, I have been looking forward to this conversation. Thank you very much for having me.
Ben Wilterdink: Excellent. Well to get things kicked off, for those who are still unfamiliar, which they shouldn’t be, your book Agency. Let’s go ahead and start off by asking you what the free “F.R.E.E.” acronym stands for, and why are those the four pillars that you decided to focus on?
Ian Rowe: Well, thank you for having me on, and thanks for the opportunity to speak about Agency. Yeah, it’s a good place to start. And before I get to the acronym, I guess, I should level set: why this book at all? And it’s relevant to the fact that for the last, well really 20, 30 years I’ve been working with kids of every background who have been in a range of situations, whether it is kids being raised in challenging conditions, whether they’ve faced domestic violence or poverty or even kids in wealthy situations.
And what I’ve really observed over the last few years is, and also running schools, I’ve run schools in the heart of the South Bronx for the last decade. I’ve just launched a new International Baccalaureate High School. And really, what I’ve observed over the last decade and certainly accelerated since the death of George Floyd, have been these dominant narratives, which in my view are increasingly eroding the idea that young people can master their own destiny, that they can be architects of their own fate.
I run schools in the Bronx primarily because I want my students to know that they can do hard things, that there are pathways to their own power. There are mechanisms even if they’re in the most challenging conditions—that there are mechanisms that many others have pursued, others who’ve been in similar conditions and have been successful. And yet, the narratives I’ve really seen emerge over the last few years have really been much more about all the things that you can’t do in our society. And as I’ve observed these messages of grievance and dependency and not messages of self-sufficiency, I felt compelled to write a book, because it’s not enough just to shout in the rain.
What’s the empowering alternative? What is it? If the messages that young people are hearing everything that you can’t do, then what am I saying? I’m putting forth as what young people can say yes to, what can they embrace. So, and I can go into more detail into the narratives that I’m fighting against, but that’s really why I have put forth this energy to write Agency, to create a framework that young people can embrace to understand how they can have much greater control of their own lives.
Ben Wilterdink: Well, let’s dig into that. What are the narratives that you see you’re pushing back against?
Ian Rowe: Yeah, so I put it in two big categories that I call “blame the system” and the other I call “blame the victim.” In the blame the system narrative, that’s a view of America. If you’re not successful in this country, if you’re not achieving the American Dream, it’s because America itself is inherently flawed. That based on your race, your class, your gender, America is in effect an oppressive nation. If you’re Black, there’s a white supremacist lurking on every corner. If you’re an average worker, capitalism itself is evil and destined for your destruction.
I mean, the New York Times 1619 Project, which has really been discredited but it’s still out there, says that America’s founding ideals were false when they were written, that the country has anti-black racism running in its very DNA. And so, this narrative of blame the system is that these systems are so rigged against you, so discriminatory, so powerful, that you as an individual are powerless to overcome them. And so, that’s obviously a very inherently debilitating message because you’ve got to wait on some system itself to shift before you can be become successful.
But the other narrative, I also, in addition to blame the system, which is inherently debilitating, there’s also what I call blame the victim. In that narrative, if you’re not successful, if you’re not achieving the American Dream, it’s not America that’s the problem. America’s the land of opportunity. America’s great. The streets are paved with gold. In a blame the victim ideology, you are the problem. You as an individual, you failed to take advantage of all the opportunities that exist in our country. “You haven’t worked hard enough, you didn’t pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. What’s wrong with you?”
Now, of course, the problem with that narrative is I run schools in the Bronx where we just opened up our new high school in the year 2015. Of all the students that started ninth grade in 2015, four years later, only 7% graduated from high school ready for college. Meaning, that they started ninth grade and either dropped out along the way, or they actually did earn their high school diploma but still could not do math nor reading without remediation if they were to even attempt to go to college.
And if you think what’s worse: that you drop out, or you do what you’re supposed to do and you still can’t compete on equal footing if you were to go out into college or in the workplace. And here’s a situation in a district where right now, today in New York City, there’s a legislative barrier. There’s a cap on charter schools. So, if someone wanted to launch a great school to help those other 93% of kids who aren’t able to compete on equal footing, you couldn’t do it, right? A 14-year-old can’t solve that problem, right?
So, that’s an example of a real barrier. So, it’s really hard to say to a kid, “Well, why didn’t you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps when you can’t even get access to the first rung, a good education, of what it means likely to lead a life of flourishing?” So, we have to have grace and understand that when we do things like blame the victim, we’re not taking into account the circumstances that many kids unfortunately find themselves in. And so, that’s the dynamic that I’ve observed is blame the system and blame the victim. Either you’re too powerless, or it’s your fault.
And that message is just very, very hard in my view for young people to really absorb and emerge with the idea that you could lead a life of agency. And so, those are the narratives that I’m really trying to fight against. And as I said, it’s not enough just to name those narratives that are inherently debilitating. What’s the compelling alternative that can unleash young people’s agency?
Clay Routledge: Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that stuff, Ian, because I think one of the things that I found, one of the many things I found really excellent in your book, was that you delve into this tension between, I guess, what you might call a radical top-down view versus the radical bottom-up self-determined view, which is like you can just do anything you want. Again, it’s all on you. And I think you did a nice job of articulating that it’s not either/or. And then you get into, which is obviously the point of F.R.E.E., you get into building the scaffolding of agency, starting obviously emanating from the individual, but with the family and education and these other societal structures.
And could you say a little bit more about that? And also, when talking about that, how you would convince or maybe how you would talk about those ideas to those two different groups? In political terms, the extreme left, which is everything is systemic, everything’s top down, no one has any individual autonomy over their existence, to the extreme, maybe libertarian-right, where anyone can just will themselves to whatever.
Ian Rowe: By hook or by crook, I’m going to this, right? Well, yeah, of course. Well, let me first also say that another piece of data that really struck me was research that I saw from the Archbridge Institute where they had asked this question about do I believe I have the capacity to lead a meaningful life? And I remember seeing, and you may correct me if I’m wrong, but I remember seeing a huge gap between older Americans, who had a much greater sense that they could lead a meaningful life, versus younger Americans, 25 and under, who you would think are being raised at a time of incredible technological innovation. You think of our advances in healthcare, and we’re living at a time of enormous explosion in one level of opportunity.
And yet in this study, more and more young people said that they did not feel that they could lead a meaningful and independent life. So, that really struck me that a lot of the forces, whether it be these two narratives of blame the victim/blame the system narrative, maybe some of the technology, the social media that exists, actually has the exact opposite effect on human flourishing. So, I just wanted to add Archbridge was really helpful in helping me to see that there’s something going on here, particularly for this generation, for the rising generation.
And, I guess, what I would say to those on the extreme left or on the extreme right, who are sort of fixed in their corners, is that my recommendation or my emerging framework for agency and how to lead a flourishing life really isn’t coming from some ideological rigid position. It’s coming from me over the last 20 to 30 years working with kids of almost every type. I’ve worked with poor kids, rich kids, Black kids, white kids, Hispanic kids, Asian kids, kids in homeless shelters, foster care, religious kids, non-religious kids. And I’ve been doing this work long enough, I’ve seen young people who as they make their passageway into young adulthood, make decisions about their lives.
And when I see kids who’ve been raised in some pretty tough conditions, as they enter their late teens or early 20s, unfortunately, they sometimes make decisions that recreate the same dysfunctions that they grew up in. Whether it be domestic violence or fragile families or single parenthood situations or poverty. It’s kind of this cycle of disadvantage was perpetuated. And yet, I’ve seen other young people who have been growing up in the same exact conditions, and yet they made different sets of decisions. They made decisions that actually put them on a path to break that cycle of disadvantage.
And the animating question in my life has been, “What makes the difference?” What were the set of interventions or pillars or institutions that those young people experienced that allowed them to be on a different path? And so, that’s what I really tried to step back and research and isolate. And frankly, one of the biggest differences I saw between those kids who recreated their disadvantage versus those that broke the cycle of disadvantage was that they had a sense of personal agency in their own lives, that they had a sense that they could lead a self-determined life.
But the key is that it didn’t come from nowhere. It didn’t just happen. They weren’t just blessed with it. And again, I’m happy to go into the framework where I think agency was cultivated, but this is where it comes from that we have to imbue within young people this idea that they are not just, as Martin Luther King said, “just flotsam and jetsam on the river of life,” that they have capacity to be an agent of their own uplift.
Ben Wilterdink: I think it would be helpful to go into the framework a little bit because I do, I am very interested in that generational gap. And as I think about some of those pillars in the framework, I think, embedded in that: those are some of the changes that we’ve seen. So, can you talk a little bit about that framework and then maybe we can touch on how that’s changed over the past few decades.
Ian Rowe: Yeah. So, just to continue on this idea of what’s the difference between those kids who are able to break the cycle of disadvantage versus those who succumbed? Again, the central difference is at this idea of personal agency that there was a belief that those that were able to break the cycle of disadvantage started with this idea that they had the capacity to shape their own destiny. And what I observed over those young people was that they embraced four pillars, and the first was family. And what was interesting is that even kids who came from families that had been marked by despair, dysfunction, drugs, again, domestic violence, poverty, it wasn’t about the family that they were from. It was about the family that they were on their pathway to form.
So, there’s some data around this idea called “the success sequence.” where if a young person finishes just their high school degree, then they get a full-time job of any kind, just so they learn the dignity and discipline of work. And then, if they have children, marriage first, 97% of millennials who pursue that series of decisions avoid poverty. It’s not a guarantee, because nothing in life is guaranteed. But it’s an amazing piece of information that I believe more and more young people need to know and learn in school and through other institutions that this is your first big set of decisions.
And my observation has been that the young people that were able to break the cycle of disadvantage, they recognized that the most consequential decision that a human being can make, the first decision is whether or not to bring another human being into the world. And that there are better processes to do that, both for you as well as your offspring.
So, that was my first observation. That young people were able to break the cycle of disadvantage regardless of the family that they were from. The pathway for the family they were going to form were much more in-line with the creation of children and spouses who were going to be in a married, two-parent household. So that was the first big observation, which is why “F” in F.R.E.E. is the first anchor.
The second observation I’ve made of those young people who are able to break the cycle of disadvantage was that these young people typically had some kind of moral framework for decision-making. That there was a sense of what was right and what was wrong. And typically, that moral framework was grounded in some religious institution, whether it was Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism. It almost didn’t matter, but that there was a core set of tenets that these young people lived by.
So, it gave them a moral code. It gave them a framework for making decisions to discern, “Is this right for me? Is it right for my community?” And that was extremely powerful. And on top of just the moral code itself, these young people who were able to break the cycle of disadvantage were also part of a community of people who lived by that same moral code. And there were these regular rituals, whether it was going to church every Sunday or you were part of a community of people, that there was almost an expectation that you lived up to this code and being part of a community because that’s something that you valued.
So, that’s my second big observation. That the role of having a personal faith commitment, typically in some kind of religion, was something else that marked, that was something in common with young people who were able to break that cycle as they entered young adulthood. And that’s why religion is the second part of my free framework.
The third observation I’ve made for those young people able to break the cycle of disadvantage is that they typically had benefited from some kind of educational freedom or school of choice that their parent or themselves had been able to find the school that was really much better designed for them.
As I mentioned earlier, we just launched an International Baccalaureate High School in the Bronx in a place where only 7% of kids graduate from high school ready for college. Well, if those are your only options, it’s really hard to build the kind of educational background that’s really going to allow you to propel forward. So, that’s my third observation. That educational choice, the ability to find a school that was really well-designed for you, that’s another element that I found in young people who are able to break the cycle of disadvantage.
And so, the fourth element, entrepreneurship actually is almost a byproduct of the first three. In that, when you had a young person who was on a pathway to form a strong family, they had a personal faith commitment, they benefited from some kind of education or school choice, that usually led someone to develop what I call an entrepreneurial mindset, which really in some ways is someone who’s resilient, who’s a problem solver in their own life, who has an overcomers attitude, right?
Entrepreneurship is typically associated with someone who launches a business, and my definition includes that. But it’s a bit more expansive in that it’s someone who is able to handle challenges when they come, because you know can fall back on the education you received or the community of faith that you are part of or the family that you’re now forming. There’s a community that has your back, that you have more of, you can become more of an informed risk-taker. You can take on challenges.
And so, the last “E” in my F.R.E.E. framework is entrepreneurship. Again, it functions primarily because of the benefits that emerged in helping embrace the pillars of family, religion, and education as the first three pillars. So, that’s where my F.R.E.E. framework really comes from. It’s 20 to 30 years of observing young people who, as they were encountering the challenges of relationships, work, timing of family formation, these pillars help them move in a different direction and ultimately lead the kind of life, the life of choosing that they’ve wanted.
Clay Routledge: Ben’s heard me go on about this in many instances, but I have to pick your brain about it. One of the things that has surprised me about all these variables that you’ve mentioned is, and I’m saying this in the context of having spent nearly two decades in academia as a professor, is how little they are taught in universities. And I don’t even mean from a promotional point of view, I mean just from a value-neutral, scientific point of view. You would think there would be more emphasis in the social and behavioral sciences on saying, “Here’s what we know works.”
Just focusing on the religion example. For instance, the amount of research within the psychology, sociology, and medical approach to religion, of all the ways that religion helps people cultivate self-regulatory resources, respond positively to negative life events, traumas, find social connections, inspire entrepreneurial positive activities. I mean, the research is honestly so overwhelming that it’s very, very odd that it’s, from my experience outside of a small community of people who do that research, is largely neglected in the classrooms and in the broader intellectual sphere. So, I’m just curious if you have any thoughts on why things that are, this is a big body of evidence, and you don’t hear a lot about it.
Ian Rowe: Clay, I share your incredulity as to why this is. When I wrote this book, Agency, and really this whole idea of the F.R.E.E. framework, to me, it’s actually just common sense. I mean, you’re talking about all the social science and evidence that’s out there. It also just makes sense that if you form a strong family, if you’re part of a faith community, if you get a good education, it seems like it’s a logical extension that would then lead you to be more entrepreneurial and to be someone who is optimistic about the future. All these things seem to come together.
And this is where the narratives come back into play. Because, for example, people who are really immersed in the blame the system ideology, where their whole thing is, “No, no, no, no, no. This is an oppressive country.” And if you are of a certain race, a certain class, a certain gender, and you want to keep pushing the narrative that those forces are more powerful, then, guess what? You actually have a perverse disincentive to not tell the rising generation about what a personal faith commitment could mean in your own life or what it means to be on the pathway to form a married two-parent household. I mean, you decided how overwhelming the data is on religion and how having a personal faith commitment, what it means.
Talk about the data as it relates to children being raised in a married two-parent household. I mean, it’s stunning. But we are in a time where it takes great courage to say obvious things. I often say this when I’m writing about my book. I know my book, the title of it is Agency, but in some ways the most important word today is courage. Because you have to be brave to go out and stand and say, “Wait a minute. Sure, there might be controversies as it relates to religious institutions, but it is irrefutable.” When you look at the data of the likelihood of forming strong marriages, the likelihood of being more civically engaged, the likelihood of being a better citizen overall, the lower levels of loneliness and depression and isolation, it’s overwhelming.
And yet, there are folks who are really doing everything in their power to suppress that kind of information. And so, where does it come from? I think these narratives have become so powerful in that there’s power in victimhood. There’s power in perpetuating narratives where you can say it’s the system that’s determinative, not your own ability to embrace these four pillars individually. And that’s what we have to fight against. That’s what we have to let young people know: that you do have power. It’s not that there aren’t “systemic issues.”
And again, I’ll cite the district where I just opened up a school. There are elected officials who perpetuate a system where you have no choice to go to a school other than the school that’s been failing for generations. That’s a real barrier. But we could never get to the point where we send messages to young people that are so nihilistic, that are so focused on all the things that you cannot do, and that you have to wait and not turn them on to all the research and common sense that things like family, religion, education, and entrepreneurship can make a huge difference in your own life.
Clay Routledge: I mean, that message that no matter what you do, you won’t be able to succeed. There’s no way to move forward. It just seems like poison to a younger person or to anybody really.
Ian Rowe: I mean, it’s poison, but it’s happening. I mean, I often use this example. Nikole Hannah-Jones, who’s the lead author of the New York Times 1619 Project, this has to do with race, but I think it’s emblematic of the issue that we’re talking about. She wrote an 8,000-word essay called “What is Owed.” And basically, it’s a treatise essentially saying that there’s nothing that Black people can do to close the racial wealth gap, that there’s no other answer other than a $14 trillion reparations program where the government just showers Black people with hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And in this piece, she literally says, it doesn’t matter what a Black person does. It doesn’t matter if they get married. It doesn’t matter if they get college educated. It doesn’t matter if they buy a home. It doesn’t matter if they save. And she says that none of those things can overcome “400 years of racialized plundering.” And the thing is, and of course the irony of course, is that she, Nikole Hannah-Jones, has done all four of those things in her own life to lead a quite prosperous existence. And the other reality is, the thing that she’s talking about is the fact that there is a racial wealth gap. If you look at the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances, the wealth of the average white American family is about $160,000 more than the wealth of the average Black American family. So, that’s true. There is a racial wealth gap if you look at nothing but race.
But if you take into account just two other factors, family structure and education, you get a very different result. The wealth of the average Black, married, college-educated family is about $160,000 more than the wealth of the average white, single-parent family. So, it’s completely reversed. But the obvious messages may be there are factors beyond just race that can make a huge difference in the life of a young person. But if the way in which you obtain and maintain power is to continue to push these narratives of hopelessness, there’s nothing you can do, then any idea of something called agency is a threat to your ideology. And this is why I say I think we just need courage to go out there and tell young people that there is a different way of thinking about your life.
Ben Wilterdink: Yeah, yeah. I mean, we talked a little bit about all of the evidence that shows the importance of these pillars that you’re talking about. And I often tell people, we work in this think tank kind of world, and we do public policy and academic research. And most of the time, the role of a think tank, especially, is to take these complex ideas and translate them in a way that makes it more digestible for people to understand. And in this particular area, we’re doing the exact opposite. We’re taking these ideas that are, like you said, are rather intuitive to some extent or at least among a certain group of people, it would be pretty intuitive to think if you have these institutions and you come from an intact family, you’re probably more likely to be more resilient and succeed.
And we’re piling on academic research and polls and studies just trying to move this ball forward and make this case. And I think your book really is helpful in that it brings together a lot of these threads, and it also introduces your personal experience working for almost, like you said, 30 years with these different kids. So, I really want to ask you, how has it been received? Have you received a lot of pushback? Have you seen a lot of people say, “I never really thought about it this way?” How has that been since you’ve fully released the book and started making these arguments?
Ian Rowe: Yeah, it’s a fair question. And so far, I’m pleased. Certainly, this idea of a third way I think people are yearning for. It’s like bringing water into the desert. Give me something that young people can say yes to, and people that work with young people. So, that’s actually been very refreshing. On the flip side, for those people who are in, for example, the blame the system camp, it doesn’t matter how nuanced my arguments are, unless you are fully in the camp where you are just saying systemic racism or systemic this or systemic that. If you’re not just continuing to parrot that ideology, then your persona non grata.
There are people such as Ibram Kendi who wrote the book, How to Be an Anti-Racist. He says, “If there’s a racial disparity, then there must be racial discrimination, period. There is no other answer.” And so, where I might say, for example, in the example in that racial wealth gap: “Well, there might be a gap, but the reasons that it exists go well beyond race.” And typically, if you embrace the four pillars, almost every issue related just to race really significantly diminishes, because you realize there’s much more power for an individual by embracing this idea of family, religion, education, and entrepreneurship.
So, I realize you can’t reach everyone, but my hope is that by including these two narratives, the blame the system and the blame the victim narrative, at least those people who, even if they ultimately don’t agree with my conclusions of this new framework of F.R.E.E., at least they’re hearing that their arguments are being acknowledged. I mean, they’re several people, even when I was writing the book, their whole thing is, “Wait a minute, are you blaming poor people for the situation that they’re in?” And I really started to take that attitude in mind that I wanted to name that. I wanted to say that a blame the victim ideology is harmful as well, like we shouldn’t make it so that, as you were saying, Clay, earlier, that an individual is just superhuman and it doesn’t matter what their conditions are. That’s unfair.
And so, my hope was that BY including these two meta-narratives, I could at least signal to people that I think I have a good understanding of the problem, even if you may not agree with my prescription. But so far, so good. I forget if we’re on a fourth or fifth printing of the book, which is amazing. I just yesterday finished taping the audiobook. It’ll come out in paperback, probably, later this year or next year. And it is interesting. I think this book has legs in the sense of the ideas that I’m putting forth are timeless. I wrote this book during 2020 and 2021 during the era of COVID, but there’s almost no mention of COVID in the book because the ideas are timeless. They’re about human flourishing. So, my hope is that it has a very long shelf life as well.
Clay Routledge: Yeah, I think people should be reading the book, and I think it should be assigned in these college classes that I’ve been complaining about. It has a very accessible overview of these different structures. In fact, one I wanted to ask you about, because it’s an area of interest at the Archbridge Institute. As you know, we do a lot of work on the American Dream, but even within that, we’re interested in the importance of a positive national identity or patriotic attitude. And we’ve found from our own studies that the good news being that the majority of Americans are proud to be American, and that’s generally the case across different groups with some variation.
But in addition to that, that’s highly correlated with positive characteristics that lead to more flourishing, like optimism about the future, social trust. And yet at the same time, my sense of just following different public intellectuals and social commentators is that there’s a growing skepticism about the American Dream and about national pride in general. And it’s not just coming from, I mean, the obvious side is this anti-American far left view, but even on the populist right, I think you see this sort of, “America is in decline.” It’s sort of a pessimism about the future and also a victimhood mindset, I think. Like, we’re all being controlled by corporate media. And so, I’m just curious as to your thoughts about, you have a chapter in there that I think it might even be called something like, it’s important to believe…
Ian Rowe: A good, if not great country —
Clay Routledge: “A Good, If Not Great Country for Agency.” And I’m curious if you could just talk a little bit about what you think about, especially as someone, you also nicely talked about your own family’s immigrant history and coming to America. So, I was just curious if you could offer any insight about what you think the importance is of having a positive national identity?
Ian Rowe: Yeah. And again, we’re at a time where there’s almost a division between people who are supportive of America, or even the word “patriot” has become politicized, where you’re some super fanatic military. And the thing about America is that for all of its faults, it’s a nation always striving towards this idea of a more perfect union. And you’re right, I do dedicate a whole chapter in the book. I used the play Hamilton as a sort of model. “I’m just like my country. I’m young, scrappy, and hungry, and I’m not going to throw away my shot.”
And there’s some power in those words. “I’m just like my country. I’m young, scrappy, and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.” I used those lyrics in the book because I do think that’s what the American spirit is all about. And some say, “Oh no, that’s the renegade individual, rugged individualism.” That’s part of it. But America was born on this idea of yes, individualism, but individualism in the context of institutions that can provide support like the institutions of strong families, faith, education, and entrepreneurship. So, I wrote this idea that we must believe that you live in a good if not great country, one that is not hostile to your dreams.
Because if you believe the blame the system narrators, then you believe the country’s hostile. You lose this sense of we are pulling together as a nation. And I think that’s just very harmful. Tocqueville said, “What makes America the most enlightened nation is the ability to repair her faults.” I’ve always found that to be a beautiful quote. And that was his observation when he was touring the country back in the 1800s. Because what it suggested is that you as an individual—”I’m just like my country. I’m young, scrappy, and hungry”—that the country has the tools of self-betterment and self-renewal. And those are documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Amendments, all of those are tools that have allowed us to become better and stronger and to make progress.
And in a sense, what I’m trying to do is for every young person to say that you have the same tools of self-betterment and self-renewal within you. “I’m just like my country. I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.” And that’s what I want to do for agency, to help every young person know that they live in a country that would allow them to have that shot, and that they don’t have to do it alone. Agency is individually practiced but socially empowered. So, these institutions are what make this country great. And in fact, it’s what the country actually depends upon.
A society that is a self-sufficient society or self-governing society depends upon self-governing individuals. Self-governing individuals don’t become self-governing just all by themselves. That is shaped. And I’ve put forth F.R.E.E. as my framework for how to create a new age of agency, a new age of human flourishing for young people.
Clay Routledge: You reminded me of something that I read many years ago in graduate school. There’s a theory in psychology called self-determination theory. It’s a very powerful theoretical framework with quite a bit of evidence and support, which makes the argument that humans by nature have a fundamental need for autonomy. That we want to see our actions as determined from within us, self-determined. The more we do things because we want to do them, the more likely we are to persist in doing them.
Silly examples being like recycling. You can get a government to force people to recycle, but people don’t like that. And then, they look for ways around it. And then as soon as it’s not required anymore and not penalized anymore, people stop doing it. But if you can convince people, if you can persuade people to use their own reasoning and to feel internally motivated to recycle, they’ll keep doing it. So, it’s much better to do the hard work of persuading people to do things for a self-determined reason. And one of the things I thought was really cool about that work was people initially, I think, thought that that was a very Western or even American-biased idea, that people in different cultures wouldn’t feel that way. People from more collectivist cultures, for instance in South Asian countries.
But what these researchers discovered is, “No. Cultures differ.” Of course, and they differ along the continuum of individualism and collectivism. But even in highly collectivist cultures, individuals have a need for self-determination. They want to feel they are choosing to be part of the collective. Even if they highly value, like in Japanese culture, even if they highly value the hierarchical structure of family and respecting your elders and things like that, they don’t want to be coerced into valuing that. They want to be enculturated in a way that allows them to be autonomous.
So, I just think that that’s something that is worth emphasizing, perhaps that we’re talking about this in the context of America, of course. But this is something that seems to be, as far as I can tell, innate to the human spirit. This is the power of agency and the desire for self-determination.
Ian Rowe: And I think it even maps to this whole issue of equity versus equality, equality of opportunity versus equity of outcome. Because what you’re talking about is that every human being wants the opportunity to fulfill their potential, their individual potential, whatever that might be. But there’s some folks who are so obsessed with this idea of a top-down ideology of equity. “Well, no, no, no, no, no. We need everyone to be the same. We need everyone to be equal outcomes.”
I mean, the end of my book, I use the short story of Harrison Bergeron, which some of you might know. Vonnegut’s incredible short story where after amendment, after amendment, after amendment, it’s finally been achieved in America where everyone is equal. But to the point where you’ve had to be handicapped. So, if you’re tall or strong, you have to carry around all of these weights so that your natural-born strength is now nullified. And it’s like you’ve created this level playing field, but it’s not level at all. There’s unhappiness because people haven’t been able to exercise their autonomy to identify whatever their God-given potential is.
And at the end of Harrison Bergeron, at the end of the short story, this character breaks out of the shackles that government has imposed on them so that they’re all equal. And there’s this moment when you realize that’s what agency is all about. There’s no guarantee in life. There’s no guarantee. And you actually accept in an age of agency that you are going to have unequal outcomes because people value different things. There’s some people that want to be captains of industry. There’s some people that want to ski for a living and do that, but that’s the essence of humanity.
But we just have to make sure that people, young people in particular, are exposed to the kinds of institutions like the pathway to forming a strong family, strong faith community, strong educational opportunities, entrepreneurship that allow them to make the right decisions for them. That the only limitation is their own imagination. And that’s why I’ve written Agency, and that’s why I think it’s more in line with what you’re talking about. We want to be autonomous individuals, although we’re also social creatures simultaneously, right?
Clay Routledge: Yeah.
Ian Rowe: Agency is individually practiced, but socially empowered.
Clay Routledge: Right, right. Yeah, I think that’s a good point, because I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what self-determination or autonomy means. And I think a good way to say it is, it means not being controlled. I mean, it doesn’t mean being individuated from everyone. It doesn’t mean being alone.
Ian Rowe: Right.
Clay Routledge: It means not being coerced. It means having the ability to choose your path.
Ian Rowe: And it doesn’t mean you have to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. “You’ve got to be this or this.” Again, it’s not to say that there isn’t room for individual agency and responsibility, of course. But if anyone’s selling that message, they’re not selling the idea of agency. They’re pushing something, which is, it almost places too much of a burden on a young person to think, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to overcome all this by myself.” And that’s inherently debilitating too.
Clay Routledge: Right. And deep down, I think people, if you have them interrogate their own success in life, they know. They’ll say, “Oh, I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the support of my wife. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without this great mentor I had.”
Ian Rowe: Yep.
Clay Routledge: Everyone knows at some level that there’s, or my time in the military or my time in this, everyone knows that there are structures, I think.
Ian Rowe: Yep. If they’re being honest.
Clay Routledge: If they’re being honest.
Ian Rowe: Well, that’s why, you know what? I gave the example of Nikole Hannah-Jones earlier, and she’s not the only one. But this fact that she’s saying it’s impossible for a Black person to do this, and not even if they do these steps, and then she does those steps, and that’s a big reason for her success. We have to call out the hypocrisy when they’re folks who do not preach what they are practicing in their own lives.
Clay Routledge: All right. Well, I think that’s a really great place to end it. Ian, thank you so much for being willing to talk with us today. We really appreciate it.
Ian Rowe: No, this was a great conversation, guys. I look forward to more work in the future and hoping to compel more young people to understand the mechanisms by which they can exercise agency within their own lives.
Clay Routledge: Thank you so much, Ian.
Ian Rowe: Yep.
Ian Rowe is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on education and upward mobility, family formation, and adoption. Mr. Rowe is also the cofounder of Vertex Partnership Academies, a new network of character-based International Baccalaureate high schools opening in the Bronx in 2022; the chairman of the board of Spence-Chapin, a nonprofit adoption services organization; and the cofounder of the National Summer School Initiative. He concurrently serves as a senior visiting fellow at the Woodson Center and a writer for the 1776 Unites Campaign. Ian is also the author of “Agency: The Four Point Plan (F.R.E.E.) for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power.”
Until July 1, 2020, Mr. Rowe was CEO of Public Prep, a nonprofit network of public charter schools based in the South Bronx and Lower East Side of Manhattan. Before joining Public Prep, he was deputy director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, senior vice president of strategic partnerships and public affairs at MTV, director of strategy and performance measurement at the USA Freedom Corps office in the White House, and co-founder and president of Third Millennium Media. Mr. Rowe also joined Teach for America in its early days.