An Age of Agency
My wife and I were reviewing some of the things we have accumulated after decades of traveling across the globe and living overseas and we wondered what pieces our children and grandchildren would like to have passed on to them. We have pottery from South America, African sugar hammers, weaving from Niger and bronzes from Nigeria. We have rugs from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and a wooden disk from a village carpenter in Ecuador. Then my wife recalled that her mother was very proud of her dining set and formal China and wanted to pass that on to us. She told her mother that we already had a nice dining set and our own China. I don’t know whatever happened to her mother’s stuff.
It’s doubtful that our kids and grandkids will want much of our stuff. Maybe the piano. But that got me wondering about what we actually can pass on to them other than a modest inheritance of what might be left of our savings. Our things and our savings might be nice for them to have, but those things won’t represent something that will significantly shape their future lives. But if we can promote in them a sense of agency, then they will have something that will help them shape the future that they desire.
I have written a lot about the importance of agency, recently in my commentary The Attraction of Victimhood(December 7, 2023), and also about the need to reinstate meritocracy as the basis for educating future generations in Urgent Priorities 2024 (January 9, 2024). I just finished reading a book by Ian Rowe titled, Agency (published 2022). Mr. Rowe is an educator and a founder of Vertex Partnership Academies and former CEO of Public Prep in the Bronx.
Mr. Rowe, the son of Jamaican immigrants, is a firm believer in the power of agency. He gets quickly down to the problem facing minority kids and other poor people (such as poor whites). Instead of trying to transform students into citizens that have the ability to control their own lives, our schools are doing the exact opposite – trying to convince kids that they have no agency - only their identity group has agency. He quotes the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-wing think tank, as saying, “Changes in individual behavior will not close the racial wealth divide, only structural systemic policy change can do that.” I guess the institute forgot to read the Coleman Report that showed that family background explained most of the achievement gap between blacks and whites. Mr. Rowe obviously did, which is why he advises parents and teachers to teach kids about the Success Sequence. I first reported about this sequence in my commentary, The Sequence of Life (March 30, 2018) that referenced an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Wendy Wang, Director of Research at the Institute for Family Studies, with the title of “The Sequence” Is the Secret to Success.
The Success Sequence is simple: graduate from high school, get a job, don’t have kids until you are married. Easy to say but, perhaps, not so easy to do. But the results are impressive. Ms. Wang’s research showed that the majority of millennials that that failed to complete any of the steps of the Sequence were poor. Poverty rates dropped as each step of the Sequence was completed. The poverty rate for Millennials that had completed all the steps of the Sequence was only 3%. But Mr. Rowe states that he discovered that in the Bronx, where his schools were, the non-marital birthrate for women under 25 was 80%. Those young women and their offspring are destined to a life of poverty.
But following the Sequence is only the first step in creating a life blessed with agency. It does help a young person avoid the trap of poverty that keeps so many from realizing their dreams. But agency, the ability to live your life as you see fit, while necessary is not sufficient. Agency is power, the ability to do something. Agency alone does not give a person the values and principles to live a good life. But Mr. Rowe has a plan to do just that!
Mr. Rowe’s plan goes by the acronym FREE, which stands for Family, Religion, Education and Entrepreneurship.
In our modern culture, normality is the new mortal sin. Heteronormativity (the concept that heterosexuality is the preferred or normal mode of sexual orientation) is now considered a form of bigotry. Ableism (the preference of not being disabled) is an unacceptable form of discrimination. Wikipedia reports that nuclear families have dropped from around 40% of US households to just over 23% and, further, that two-thirds of all children will spend some time in a single parent household. Human beings are complex and different circumstances will result in a variety of household arrangements. But that does not mean that the traditional nuclear family should disparaged as it is by Black Lives Matter and many progressives.
Why? Because traditional families work well in our American Western culture. Many on the left want to get rid of our American Western culture along with traditional families. Mr. Rowe disagrees. He wants to heighten the importance of traditional families and proposes several initiatives to renew our traditional social norms. This will not only reduce poverty rates, it will improve the lives of the children living in stable, loving families.
Mr. Rowe also believes that religion should play an important role in family life and the development of children. The progressive left views religion as an enemy and the embodiment of traditional values that are opposed to their woke ideology – an ideology that Columbia University professor John McWhorter calls an illogical, unreachable and neoracist religion. In the past, churches, temples and mosques played an important role in binding a community together and providing mutual support for members. On a local level, communities of faith can play an important role as Mr. Rowe proposes. But in an increasingly secular world, we may need to find other intermediating institutions to play that role. This will be particularly difficult as government programs eviscerate civic organizations across the country.
Mr. Rowe proposes several steps to improve education in America, including school choice, a focus on meritocracy, and changing race-based affirmative action to class-based affirmative action. It is clear that diversity, equity and inclusion programs have indoctrinated our children instead of educating them. This has harmed, not only the lives of all the children subjected to this indoctrination, but also our country as there are fewer qualified people entering the workforce and military service. To prove that poor minority kids can excel, Mr. Rowe has created Vertex Partnership Academies in the Bronx to provide an international baccalaureate program for those kids.
Entrepreneurship, to Mr. Rowe’s way of thinking, goes beyond creating start-up companies or family businesses. He views it as the application of your agency in real life. It is the spirit of adventure to try new things which may include starting a new business but also includes many other things. Mr. Rowe himself has used his Harvard MBA in careers as far flung as Anderson Consulting, the White House, MTV, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and CEO of Public Prep. He is also a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Woodson Center.
As an immigrant, perhaps Mr. Rowe looks at America with different eyes than us native-born Americans. He sees an America that prompted his parents to pick up and move to a new country. He sees an America that has sustained and nurtured immigrants from across the globe. He sees an America that could and, more importantly, should be. We know that the America of the past was not perfect, but compared to other countries it was pretty darn good. What Mr. Rowe is recommending is not a reversion to the past, which includes all of our past mistakes, but building on the progress we have already made. Mr. Rowe wants to create an age of agency to propel America ever closer to fulfilling the promise of our values and principles.
If we can give our children and grandchildren agency, especially the amplified and principled agency Ian Rowe describes, we give them more than the keepsakes of worldwide wanderers, more than paltry inheritances, we give them hope.