This week on High Noon with Inez Stepman, the indefatigable Ian Rowe joins the pod. Rowe is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a visiting fellow with the Woodson Center as part of their 1776 Unites project. He is the author of the new book Agency: The Four Point Plan (F.R.E.E.) for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover their Pathway to Power, and runs a new set of charter schools in the Bronx based on the four cardinal virtues.

Ian and Inez discussed how perception and ideology can affect kids’ psychology in a very real way, the middle ground between total individualism and a kind of systemic collectivism, and how we can recognize both personal agency and institutional influence on people’s life outcomes.  They also dig into what to do when those most influential institutions — like family structure, schools, and others, become weak and corrupted — and how those who have found themselves in the thickets of modern life, without the human and civic supports they desperately need, can nevertheless find a pathway to a positive future.

High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. The podcast features interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future. Hosted by Inez Stepman of Independent Women’s Forum.


TRANSCRIPT

Inez Stepman:

Welcome to High Noon where we talk about controversial subjects with interesting people. And this week, I have somebody on who I’ve wanted to have on for a very long time. He’s somebody who personally inspires me as I was telling him just before we went on this podcast because he has in spades something I so often think that I don’t, which is this incredible positive and pragmatic energy to just build and create better things that actually change people’s lives in a real way as opposed to the gloss that we seem to have around such things so much today, but Ian Rowe is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He’s also a visiting fellow at the Woodson Center, part of their 1776 Unites project. He has a new book out just I think May 15th, right?

Ian Rowe:

Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

Inez Stepman:

So a new book out called “Agency: The Four Point Plan (F.R.E.E.) for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power.” He’s also running a set of charter schools in the Bronx based, I believe, around the four cardinal virtues.

Ian Rowe:

Yes, yes, yes.

Inez Stepman:

And there’s literally probably six or seven more hats that Ian wears, but in the interest of actually getting to the conversation, I’ll stop there. Welcome Ian Rowe to High Noon.

Ian Rowe:

Oh, my gosh, Inez, I’m so happy that we finally are connecting, I know that we’ve wanted to do this for a long time. And by the way, great funky music on that intro. I like it. I like it.

Inez Stepman:

So let’s start with how you ended up where you are now. How did you become convinced of some of these things that you really have been a champion for personal agency, but not in isolation and we’ll get to that, that happy balance that you write about, but first tell me where? How did Ian Rowe end up where you are right now and thinking the thoughts that you do?

Ian Rowe:

Wow. Yes.

Inez Stepman:

Easy question.

Ian Rowe:

Yeah, it’s easy, my origin story. So it is actually interesting, what is or what was my epiphany moment? Because as you said, I’ve run schools in the heart of the South Bronx for the last decade. I’ve had amazing experiences all in and around young people. I was at MTV for six years. I was with the Gates Foundation at the White House, all trying to figure out ways to improve the lives of young people. But I think July 11th, 2016 at about 4:00 PM, I think that was the moment. So you want to know what happened in July ’16? July 11th?

Inez Stepman:

Of course, I want to know what I happened.

Ian Rowe:

So I had been running this network of public charter schools. We’re doing quite well. Demand was really high. Our schools were in the South Bronx in the lower east side of Manhattan and we wanted to grow like, “Where would we open more new schools?” There were nearly 5,000 families on our waitlist every single year, but in places like the South Bronx, you had districts where only 2% of kids were graduating from high school, ready for college, just lacking opportunity. And so we decided to move our headquarters from Tribeca. If you’re familiar with Lower Manhattan like West Broadway, it’s very hip, the Quiche. You can get a latte on every corner.

We decided to move our headquarters to the South Bronx, near 149th Street and 3rd Avenue because if this is where our new schools were going to be, we should have our headquarters be there as well. And yes, it was a higher crime area. There was even a needle exchange on the corner where we had our office, but I felt that kids need to go to great schools here and why not build our headquarters. So that’s what we did. So we decided to do a walking tour on July 11th, 2016, and about close to 4:00 PM as we were walking as a team to get to know the neighborhood like where’s the local bodega, where’s the local bank, we saw this 27-foot baby blue Winnebago truck and all these adults were around it and they were somewhat excited, almost similar to the ice cream truck, that when you see kids around it like, “Oh, my. It’s very exciting.”

As we got closer, we saw that there was graffiti lettering on the side and the graffiti lettering said, “Who’s your daddy? And it turns out that the Who’s Your Daddy? truck is a mobile DNA testing center where low-income folks spend somewhere between $350 to $500 to do DNA testing on the spot to answer questions like, “Could you be my sister? Are you my father?” like really deep questions about identity. And as it turned out, this truck was in such demand that the entrepreneur who had launched it had a second truck. VH1, the television network had a reality series called Swab Stories because when you went on the truck, you had a DNA sample and it suddenly became entertainment where people are learning lifelong or answers to mysteries around their family.

And there was something about that experience. I discovered the nonmarital birth rate in this particular area of the Bronx, it was 85%. And you can go to Chicago, Appalachia, Buffalo, Rochester and see that these numbers were not so uncommon. And it was, I think, at that moment that I thought running schools is important. It’s necessary but not sufficient. And that if we really want to help the rising generation think differently about their lives think about how they can lead a life of flourishing regardless of how they come into the world, there are a set of pathways that we leaders, we, the collectors of wisdom around what it means to lead a life of flourishing that we can do that.

And in some ways, my book agency, a lot of my work was born in that very moment that it was enough to be a school leader. I’m a big fan of not just walking the walk. I think you got to talk the walk. You have to build institutions that do what you believe is right, so I’ve often felt that’s why I run schools to let kids know that they can do hard things, but I felt I had to take an even bigger role in expressing all of the elements that are so critical to human flourishing, even beyond just education.

Inez Stepman:

Yeah. What’s interesting, even in this one thing that you’ve identified, out-of-wedlock births for example, and what I was trying to look up as you were speaking was what the Asian out-of-wedlock birth is rate is in the United States because this is the only group that I’m not sure about. But I believe that every other US substrata that every one of us essentially now is beyond the Moynihan threshold, right?

Ian Rowe:

Yes.

Inez Stepman:

It takes back to the Moynihan report and this is Daniel Patrick Moynihan who was the first to call what was happening then in pockets of the black community in America, a high out-of-wedlock birth rate, which I believe was 25 or 30%.

Ian Rowe:

It was 23.6% exactly.

Inez Stepman:

And pretty for every racial group in America is now over that is what I was going to say.

Ian Rowe:

Well, and the white population is now farther than that. Yeah, and the thing that’s interesting about that because I hadn’t really read that. It’s so interesting as an educator, you put your blinders on, “I just got to run grade schools. What’s the curricula? Hire great teachers,” but the truth is there are all these factors that really matter, family structure being one of them. So I read the Moynihan report in detail after this epiphany experience because he really articulated, this was in the mid-1960s, that 23.6%. And by the way, there was a growing black middle class then and so he was saying, “Look, there’s a pocket.” Just like you just said, there’s a segment of the black community that’s crisis, crisis, crisis. The non-marital birth rate for everyone else was single digits. It was about 5% or 6% for the entire country, but it was 23.6%.

And he said, “If we don’t …” And what’s also interesting, he said, “It’s really connected to the legacy of slavery.” He tied the historical discrimination. I don’t think he’s 100% correct, but he even said that it’s not that there’s necessarily this pathology, but this is a real issue, and unless we address, it will become its own self-perpetuating force. And so now to your point, the nonmarital birth rate in the black community is more than 70%. As a country, it’s still 40% and it’s been that way for about 13 consecutive years now. In the Hispanic community, it’s about 60%. And in the white community, it’s north of 30%. In the Asian community, I still believe it’s less than 30%, but even that is increasing.

But the point is this has become what I call an equal opportunity tsunami because for many kids raised, particularly with younger single mothers and we have to say, there’s no guarantee. You could be born into a stable married two-parent household and not be successful. And you could also be born into a single parent, young parent and your life could be flourishing because your parent is just determined for you to be successful. But the data is overwhelming, that the likelihood of success is dramatically different in a married two-parent household. So again, for me, when I saw this truck and what it meant and its normalcy and its acceptance, for me, it became clear that it’s math and science and reading obviously crucial.

But we also have to let young people know about the other areas of life, the other areas of decision making that actually, by the way, can be sources of great happiness and joy and love and fulfillment. And that’s the formation of a family. We’ll talk about it. It’s practicing a personal faith commitment. We can talk about it more, but it just became clear to me that there was lots of collective wisdom that we were depriving young people of. And then to see the negative impacts of things like very high levels of no-marital births, we just need to be honest with our kids about the choices that they’re going to make for their own lives.

Inez Stepman:

One of the things that I really appreciated about how you lay things out in this book and elsewhere in your work, you’ve really found this balance between total individualism, what you call pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and a kind of systemic collectivism that completely removes agency from the individual. So you recognized both the importance of personal agency and institutional influence. Can you maybe lay out that distinction for us and then we can dig into it more?

Ian Rowe:

Yeah, I think it’s important because I do think young people … I looked at some data the other day, the Archbridge Institute did an analysis of how young people feel in their lives and they did it by age group. And only 39% of, I think, young people aged 15 to 24 believe that they had a sense of agency, believe that they could lead a fulfilling life based on their own decisions which is almost half what older generations believed about their own lives. And yet, we are at a time when the level of technological innovation, the power that young people have in the device, you just think about it just how things have changed.

The Millennials were born when the iPod was basically created, and a month ago, Apple said it’s obsolete. They’re no longer even going to be producing it. You just think about the level of weaponry, intellectual weaponry in the hands of young people, and yet, the levels of loneliness, isolation, depression are in some levels that they’re at an all-time high. And so what is causing this? What is causing so many young people to feel alone and powerless and not having control of their own lives? And I do believe that there are these two meta narratives. The first I call blame the system and the other I call blame the victim. In a blame-the-system framework … That’s my dog in the background.

Inez Stepman:

It happens.

Ian Rowe:

Yes, yes. That that’s Cosmo. He’s-

Inez Stepman:

That’s part of having all the everybody doing everything, [inaudible 00:13:40] the intellectual weaponry you’re talking about, the dogs have seized this for their own purposes.

Ian Rowe:

Yes, they remind us that all this is just, “Blah, blah, blah. There’s a dog across the street that’s much more important.” He’ll walk by soon, but we’ll make it through it. But in a blame-the-system narrative, if you are not successful, if you’re not able to achieve the American dream, it’s because America itself is the problem. It’s America itself which is the … Based on your skin color or your gender or some other characteristic, the system is rigged against you. It’s an oppressive nation. Like there’s a white supremacist lurking on every corner. Capitalism itself is perverse and evil. And these systems are so powerful, so discriminatory that the only way that you can be successful is if there’s a massive government intervention or massive societal transformation.

And you see this in things like the 1619 Project or antiracist doctrine or critical race theory that literally our systems are embedded with this hateful ideology, right? And so clearly that robs you of agency as a young person, whether you’re white or black, right? Because if you’re black, you’re suffering under the weight of these systems, or if you’re white, you’re inherently an oppressor. Everyone just takes all of these roles. But on the other side, the other narrative is what I call blame the victim. And in the blame the victim narrative, that is, if you’re not successful, it’s not America. America’s great. America’s the land of opportunity. It’s your fault. You didn’t pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. You didn’t do …

It’s some pathology that you have. You made bad decisions. And of course, the challenge there is that, if you’re a seven-year-old kid and you haven’t had the benefit of being in a stable family or a strong faith commitment or been able to go to a school of your choice, it’s really hard to lead a life of flourishing. So we can’t penalize young people if they haven’t had the kinds of institutional supports that really make a difference to most people who lead a life of agency. And I’ve been visiting college campuses, talking about this topic of these two meta-narratives. I was at a law school and a student raised his hand. He was a law student. He says to me, “Well, if I can’t blame the victim and I can’t blame the system, then who do I blame?” And it was just this very interesting question because, for him, he needed a culprit like, “What is wrong with America?”

It’s so interesting. He needed to obsess over, he needed an articulation of, “Who’s to blame?” as opposed to “Why does America work? For the hundreds of years it’s been in existence, what are the institutions that have allowed generally hundreds of millions of people to lead lives of flourishing?” And so it is, in my belief, young people need a framework that they can say yes to, that they can know that they do have the capacity to overcome the institutional barriers, that the blame-the-system people say are insurmountable while also saying that there are institutions that can provide the supports that the blame-the-victim people constantly ignore.

And I call this new way of being agency, the force of your free will guided by moral discernment. The force of your free will guided by moral discernment. So just think of agency as a vector, right? The vector of velocity is not just speed, it’s speed and direction, right? So if you, as a human being, have free will, where do you develop the capacity to become morally discerning? That doesn’t just come out of nowhere. And so in my book, I really outlined this FREE framework, family, religion, education and entrepreneurship. And family is not about the family that you’re from, it’s about the family you formed.

R is about a personal faith commitment. E is education, school choice. And if you have those three, a strong family that you’ve formed, strong faith commitment, strong educational choice, that then sets you up for what in my view is a life of entrepreneurship. It’s work, but it’s this idea that you can become an owner of your own destiny. I can go into each one, but that’s the meta-narrative that I think is impede, the blame-the-system and blame-the-victim meta-narratives that together add up to a singular lie and are impeding young people’s ability to say, “I want to lean in and I want to engage in life. And yet, I think there’s much more of a victimhood idea, either a learned helplessness or, “These systems are too large,” or, “Society’s too racist or too sexist or to something that I don’t have the ability to be successful.”

Inez Stepman:

There’s almost a human scale element here recognizing the human level institutions or the mediating institutions between the very, very large system that becomes faceless and a stand-in only for an abstract form of power that may or may not exist and the totally like single atom, where you’re completely willing every aspect of your life into existence. But you have a column in The New York Post over the weekend entitled, “Here’s Why All Students Need Agency Rather Than Equity.” And you cite Eric Kauffman who was actually a guest on this podcast a few weeks ago, but this is something that I found incredible. I guess he, in his research, has found that even reading “A Letter to My Son” by Ta-Nehisi Coates was, “Enough to reduce black respondents’ sense of control over their lives.” That’s incredible.

Ian Rowe:

Well, if you read the passage-

Inez Stepman:

That’s immeasurable.

Ian Rowe:

Yeah. Well, read the passages. In Coates’ book, he talks about the black body and how it’s being pummeled and assaulted. He’s actually a beautiful writer when you really dig into it. I remember reading it myself and just feeling, “Oh, God, is this how I’m supposed to see my own sense of possibility that my body is simply a ragdoll to be pummeled by police, vigilant police or other white supremacists who are just always there.” And Eric Kauffman, he did. He, he compared the reading passages there versus other passages which actually talked about black ancestry and the power of resiliency. And he measured people afterwards and there was a decided difference in your sense of personal agency that, “I could be successful.”

And this is what I think more people just need to understand. Nicole Hannah-Jones, one of the lead architects of The New York Times 1619 Project, she has this whole passage as it relates to race where she says, “There’s nothing a black person can do.” It doesn’t matter if you get married. It doesn’t matter if you get educated. It doesn’t matter if you buy a home. It doesn’t matter if you save. “None of those things can overcome 400 years of racialized plundering.” If enough kids, and again black and white kids, hear this over and over and over and over again, you start to think, “Well, I guess I don’t have the ability to break out of these roles,” whether you are the inherent oppressor or the inherent oppressed. This learned helplessness starts to seep in. And so for me, I want to demonstrate that there’s an alternative to this narrative of grievance and dependency and I want to replace that with hope and agency.

Inez Stepman:

One of the interesting things about our moment is that we’re used to having exactly these kinds of conversations in America, mostly focused around black Americans, right? And it seems to me that in the last four to six years, the national conversation has been quite similar with regard, for example, to Appalachia or with regard to mostly white people in the Rust Belt, right?

Ian Rowe:

Sure. Right.

Inez Stepman:

And it strikes me that a lot of these conversations are very similar. They’re about the collapse of mediating institutions like family, essentially a sense that the game is rigged against you. And so I’m wondering if you give any more credence to that sense that things are rigged when you look at because so much of your book and your worldview generally is hinging on institutional support, starting with the family but going out from there, right?

Ian Rowe:

Yeah, true.

Inez Stepman:

We live in a time where the vast majority of Americans, white, black, Asian, Hispanic, whatever don’t trust their institutions and an age in which those institutions have earned, in many ways have really earned the mistrust of people. How does this whole framework work when trust in institutions is in free fall and when the institutions themselves truly do seem to be set against the success of ordinary people in some like actual real ways that aren’t just a sense of grievance.

Ian Rowe:

Yeah, it’s a deep question. What’s interesting, what I would say is that the mistrust or distrust that’s developed, which is absolutely true, I think still exists for the far-away institutions, so the media, the press, Congress, the “far-away institutions” and I’m drawing a distinction between the far-away institutions and the much more proximate-mediating institutions. Because the most important, just as we just said, first off, is your family, right? Because that’s your anchor. Then your faith community, your school community. It’s really interesting, when you poll parents, they still generally, although things have shifted over the last two years, there’s still a lot of trust in your teacher, right? There’s still a lot of trust in your local pastor.

“Maybe the rest of the school system screwed up, but our teacher is okay, right?” or, “My local pastor is kind, even if those other people may no longer or they may be amoral.” And so the reason I spent so much time on this framework of family, religion education and ultimately entrepreneurship is that those first three are the most local proximate institutions from birth. Even before you get to formal schooling, you’ve got five long years being nurtured or not, but hopefully nurtured, by your family, those values, that character formation. And what I think is happening in our country today is that because of the weakening of the family structure, the lower religiosity, lack of high-quality options in education, that cocoon that used to surround every young person is now being more penetrated by these larger institutions or social media, policy, the press.

So suddenly what used to be the cocooning responsibility of parents, but now many kids are being raised particularly in disadvantaged homes, in unstable nonmarital birth-driven homes, lesser religiosity, lesser high-quality school options, where do kids now gain access to the kinds of values and morals that would normally protect them? And so this to me is the singular issue that the distrust now that exists of the “far-away institutions”, whether it be the police, to Congress or the presidency, it no longer feels like those institutions are working in your favor or whatever messages particularly in social media you’re getting are no longer productive which is why I agree a lot with Yuval Levin who wrote a book, “A Time to Build,” we need to strengthen mediating institutions.

Because what seems to be happening is that we’re trying to tear down the larger institutions like, “Let’s break up the Supreme Court,” or, “Let’s just pack the court with more people, so we can ensure that they vote our way,” all these ideas, but ignoring the fact there has been, to some degree, a collapse of the institutions that matter most to young people.

Inez Stepman:

I guess even those closer institutions and obviously you’re pointing to their weakening throughout the spoken, throughout your work, you’re pointing to exactly how those institutions are not really or have not been there for a lot more young people than used to be the case. So you have the rise of the nones, the N-O-N-E, not the nuns in a monastery, but quite the reverse. We have schools that for decades have been failing students academically, but now we see the rise, even within, for example, charter networks of schools that are teaching exactly the sort of self-defeating, lack-of-agency narrative that you’re decrying.

And we have a lot more people who just come from unstable or broken families. So where do we go from here? You say we need to rebuild these kinds of institutions, but it seems like these are actually things that are extraordinarily difficult to rebuild. Perhaps in education, we can come up with, and we are both in ed policy, but we can come up with a set of policy prescriptions, but with regard to the falling away from religion and with regard to broken families, it’s not clear at all that there’s a policy prescription or something in particular from the national level that we can do. How would you propose to actually start to rebuild some of these mediating institutions so that they are a positive rather than a negative influence because that seems like a really, really top order to me.

Ian Rowe:

Yup. It is. It is. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie “Top Gun: Maverick” and this whole film is set up around this impossible mission to destroy these uranium plants in some far away country. You’ve got to take these F-18 fighter planes up above a mountain, go through this ravine and hit these targets that are just incredible and no one believes it can be done. And there’s a moment in the movie where Tom Cruise’s character just gets on a plane and simulates doing this mission, taking his life into risk and he does. And it’s this very triumphal moment, and then of course later on, they actually do it in real life. He was practicing it, but there’s a moment where he has to prove that it’s possible.

And I very much feel my work and hopefully inspiring others, we have to build the institutions that demonstrate the values that we’re all talking about. So that’s why I’m launching a new network of high schools this August in the Bronx that’s committed to these ideas of individual dignity, our common humanity, equal opportunity and organized around the four cardinal virtues of courage, justice, wisdom and temperance because I believe … And I think it’s going to be an amazing school, International Baccalaureate model, replicable so that hopefully others can see we don’t have to be so overwhelmed.

Because you’re right, Inez, what you just said, it’s very daunting. There is no silver bullet policy that can be passed the state or local level. There are certain things we can do to enhance, for example, school choice or removing penalties around marriage. So there are some technical interventions that can be implemented, but by far and large, it’s going to take people like us to say that we’re not so weighed down by the immensity of the challenge to just succumb to it. We actually have to say, “Wait a minute. You know what? There are people in every single community in this country who are already working around the forces.”

I do a lot of work with Bob Woodson who runs the Woodson Center and who for 40 years has helped tens of thousands of people become agents of their own [inaudible 00:31:32] that you’ve never heard of, who are working within their communities and leveraging the strength of family and faith and schools. So part of why I, again, run schools is, a, to let young people know that they can do hard things. They will face challenges. There may be even people that don’t like them because of their skin color or don’t like them for any number of reasons, but it’s not insurmountable. And that there are local institutions, the most important one being the family, not the family that you’re from, but the family that you form.

So that’s why data like the success sequence where if you finish your high school degree, full-time work, marriage and children, 97% of the time you avoid poverty, that’s important information for young people to learn as they encounter these decisions upcoming in their life, but this is the central challenge. Honestly, it’s why I’ve written this book. I feel like these blame-the-victim, blame-the-system narratives have led people to believe that our institutions are so corrupt. Religiosity is down just as you said, nones, it just feels like it’s hopeless. And yet, there are millions and millions and millions of young Americans who have embraced the ideas of family and faith and hard work and free enterprise and entrepreneurship and they’re leading pretty great lives of all races.

So how do we start telling those stories to counter what you rightfully say is a very debilitating and defeatist narrative? And I just feel that’s the essence of this country. De Tocqueville, when he observed America many years ago, one of his lines was, “America is not more enlightened than any other nation, but is it’s because of its ability to repair her faults.” And I just find that an incredibly powerful sentiment that the tools of self-betterment and self-renewal exist in our country and I want young people to know that the tools of self-betterment and self-renewal exist within you and that you don’t have to do it on your own, but there are institutions. And yes, you’ve got to be part of seeking them out, but they exist within your local community.

So this is the struggle, we’re in an inflection point in our country where I think it is very easy to give up or just to fall into a defeatist narrative, we’re all waiting for some authoritarian president or some leader to just save the day and that’s not what this is about. This is about, in many ways, bottom-up reconstruction of our own lives and in some sense, that’s what agency is about. You can lead the life of your own choosing, but there are local institutions that can help you get there. We can’t wait for somebody else or some government or some other artificial force to solve our problems.

Inez Stepman:

Ian, what happened to KIPP?

Ian Rowe:

Oh, well-

Inez Stepman:

Because, just to catch people up, so KIPP is a large charter network that used to embody a lot of what you just said. It was really about creating a school culture that supported hard work, that supported agency. And it’s been one of the most disappointing stories to me that, for example, they recently got rid of what used to be their slogan, “Work hard, be nice.” That was considered somehow not sufficiently antiracist.

Ian Rowe:

Yes. Well, you’re citing a great example and it’s very painful for me because I personally know the leaders of these organizations and not just KIPP, there are others that for 20-25 years actually were saying, “No, you are not trapped by circumstance and that, ‘Work hard, be nice,’ was your slogan which signaled that your effort matters and your character matters. No matter what, no one can take that away from you.” But yeah, a couple years ago they decided, and every organization has the right to change its slogan, right? But they said, “Not only is ‘Work hard, be nice’ wrong, but it’s wrong or we’re removing it because ‘meritocracy is an illusion.'”

So think about that, “Wait a minute, you’re saying it doesn’t matter, like it’s just an illusion, this is a falsehood?” The one thing we, as school leaders, give to our kids is the anchor that knowing that their effort will be part of the mix. It doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee. And so when KIPP made that decision, it was very challenging. I write about it in the book and I found a quote from one of their graduates and I put it in the book who talks about how the term, “Work hard, be nice,” was such an important part of her development and how it was something that her teachers had really instilled in her.

So it’s just such a deep contrast as always between the “elites” who think that they’re representing the interest of the “disadvantaged” and then you speak to the folks themselves and say, “No, no, no, no, no. Work hard, be nice,” it’s important because if you take that away, what do I have left?” Because when you lower standards, generally, all you’re doing is you’re eliminating the ability to achieve a level of dignity with excellence. You remove the bar. I don’t know if you know this, but they have created a new slogan. It’s something like, “Together, a future without limits.” Like some milquetoast, no verb, but I think it was intended so that it wouldn’t offend anybody.

When we, as adults, succumb to this kind of antiracism, these pressures to not offend anybody or somehow say, “Well, hard work doesn’t matter,” or that, “Meritocracy is an illusion,” it is disappointing, but what’s the answer? The answer can’t just be, keep shouting in the rain, then build a better organization. Build Vertex Partnership Academies like I’m doing or any number of people who are not sitting still and if the old institutions are corrupting themselves with this defeatist mindset, then we’ve got to speak out and build the empowering alternative.

That’s why I’ve written this book because otherwise we’re just … And let me also just quickly say, sometimes I think the people who are spouting all this nonsense, this narrative of defeatism, they are counting on you, Inez, to be so deflated that you’re just going to be like, “Ugh,” you’re just going to be silent, because you know if you try to do something, people are going to attack you. They’re going to call you all sorts of bad names. They’re counting on you to not fight back. Don’t let them have that victory. Glenn Loury was a great economist and commentator. He says this all the time, “It’s a bluff. These people are bluffing you to call out that somehow, ‘Work hard, be nice’ is false because meritocracy is an illusion according to them, it’s a bluff. You know it’s wrong. Have the courage to say obvious things out loud.” And I just feel like I want to put myself on the line because I know how important it is for young people and how defeatist these ideologies really are.

Inez Stepman:

You talked about how there’s no guarantee, right? That your hard work and your agency is but one input, but it’s an important one. Some folks, like for example, Caldwell has written this book called Age of Entitlement, Christopher Caldwell, where he essentially makes the argument, and maybe I’m simplifying it a little bit, but he essentially says that as soon as a society guarantees equality of opportunity, that essentially a lot of the place that we’ve ended up with has been the disappointment that equality of opportunity did not lead to an equality of outcome.

So how do you advance in a society-level way? The, the critical difference between those two things because it seems like Caldwell and some other folks on the right now think that this is inevitable, right? Once you put forward some equality principle, the expectation is going to be, well, then, all the outputs will be the same at the end of the day given a set amount of work that we’re going to see everybody end up in the same place. And that’s always going to be the inevitable sort of psychological. Because I think his argument at the end of the day is a psychological one. It’s like that once we make this promise of equality, people will be disappointed when it’s not fulfilled in like actual outcome.

Ian Rowe:

Yeah. Well, this is the whole argument of equality of opportunity versus equity. First of all, we just have to disabuse people of this idea that in almost any setting, all people come out the same. On an individual basis, much less all people come out the same on an identity group basis, right? Ibram Kendi says, “Well, if I see a gap or some racial achievement gap, then that means racial discrimination, and therefore, the solution must also be race based.” And it’s like, “Wait, wait, wait. First of all, why are you even starting with this premise that all outcomes must be equal?”

Equality of opportunity is an incredibly powerful organizing principle for any society. The fact that the outcomes aren’t equivalent, it’s an impossible even suggestion to make and that every human being has individual strengths, areas of growth, individual characteristics, factors, circumstances that dictate how they lead their life. And by the way, they also have different desires. Not everyone wants to be an engineer, not everyone wants to be whatever, just pick any profession, but what we do want to ensure is that everyone has equal access.

And one of the things I think in education that we do, so let’s say you’re a teacher and you’ve got 25 students in your class, that means you’ve got 25 human beings with individual strengths, individual areas of growth who are in varying family structures who have all sorts of different inputs. And so you, as a good teacher, you have what we call differentiated supports. You figure out, “Well, what are the ways in which I’m going to help this student learn?” to get you to the point where everyone is on an equal playing field. That doesn’t mean equal outcomes. It just means everyone’s got an equal shot.

And that is the best, I think, we can do. The very fact that you have inequities doesn’t inherently mean that that’s because of some superficial discrimination. Now, if there actually is discrimination, sure let’s deal with that, but to make the assumption that inherently inequity means that there’s some lurking evildoer that’s forcibly creating these inequities, I think, is a false premise. And what we’d need to be much more focused on is this idea of equality of opportunity. I wrote this piece in The New York Post, as you said, because this idea of forcing equity, especially racial equity is what leads, like for example, the governor in Oregon, who a couple of months ago decided to, in the name of equity, eliminate the requirement for kids to demonstrate proficiency in reading nor math in order to graduate from high school and this was to help kids of color.

Well, how sick is that? You are reducing the standard. You’re saying, “In order for kids of color to ‘compete’, you are eliminating the standard of expectations around math and reading?” that is so insidious. And not only is it discriminatory, it’s racist, right? So yeah, so this kind of thinking about, “Well, we haven’t gotten equality of outcome, so therefore what’s wrong with equality of opportunity,” it’s a false premise to begin with.

Inez Stepman:

That’s certainly the more constrained view of human existence in life. I wanted to ask you actually, just to change gears a little bit, I wanted to ask you what you think about Camille Foster and Thomas Chatterton Williams’ arguments about race existing or not. Functionally, just to lay it out, they argue that race is socially constructed which is certainly true to some extent when, I think, Thomas Chatterton Williams points the fact that he’s read as Arab right, here, he’s read as a mixed black man. When he’s in France where he lives, he’s read as Arab because actually the phenotypical traits that we’d notice race aren’t very clearly carved up. There’s a lot of penumbra in between. There’s a lot of different national peoples.

Clearly, there’s some correlation, it seems to me between genetic background and a certain set of phenotypical characteristics, but they argue that this concept that we’re using doesn’t really exist. Do you think that’s right or do you think that there’s more to this concept that’s real, but perhaps it’s just not as important as some folks would like it to be or imagine it to be?

Ian Rowe:

Yeah, well, it’s clear. Race is clearly a social construct. It’s just that, unfortunately, we still live in a society where your race matters or the assumptions around your race matters. And to the degree that we can start to realize that there are factors beyond race, then maybe we can start making some headway in some of the other things that really matter to human flourishing and agencies such as strong families, strong faith commitment, education, entrepreneurship. In education, let’s go down this race road for a second, there’s the racial achievement gap where, historically, if you look at the last 40-50 years, there’s just been this constant, almost permanent gap between underperformance of black students relative to white students, right? And we got to close the racial achievement gap.

Well, ironically, in the entire history of the nation’s assessment, the National Assessment for Educational Progress, otherwise known as the Nation’s Report Card, since early ’90s, there has never been a situation in which a majority of white students are reading at grade level, right? And so if you were to actually close the racial achievement gap, all you’d be doing is achieving universal mediocrity. It’s highly unlikely that systemic racism is the reason that the majority of white students have not been reading at grade level. And perhaps, the reason that a majority of white kids and a larger majority of black kids are not reading is not necessarily or solely due to these forces based on skin color.

Maybe it has to do with stronger families, stronger faith commitment where there’s great correlation to better educational outcomes, strong school choice, higher curriculum, the science of reading. So we would start to discover. And one of the things I actually want to do with the National Assessment for Educational Progress is to make family structure one of the prisms through which we highlight student achievement. So we go beyond the usual suspects of race or class or gender. If you had family structure, you would actually start to see that married two-parent households versus single parent versus grandparent, there are about seven different mutually exclusive categories, you would start to see across race, across class, across gender that kids being raised in married two-parent households have far greater academic outcomes.

And the reason that’s important is that maybe our solution set would start to differ because we’d start to say, “Okay, well then how do we strengthen families both culturally and through policy?” And so this idea of race being a social construct is no longer the predominant topic when we’re discussing these kinds of issues because we’d start to see that actually race is not the thing that seems to be the most important thing when it comes to explaining outcomes for students and academics, or frankly, almost any other area.

Inez Stepman:

So what I’m fairly certain really is cultural … The idea that culture and perhaps race are totally, not totally, but mostly as you’re saying, disconnected from each other or at least can be. It’s not clear to me that that’s as much the case with … Look, again, on your principle, the closer you get to the actual, immediate influences in your life, right? So I feel like it’s very hard to deny, people would say that obviously their family impacts them and then on some level the values that their family has imparted to them have something to do with the ethnic background of that family or where they came from, right?

I’ve obviously been quite seriously influenced by the fact that my, my parents came from the other side of the Iron Curtain, right? So there is some connection there, but I’m open to the idea that the connection is on a more granular level than race, that maybe it’s more on the ethnic and national level rather than on these broader categories. Because those broader categories do seem to be so full of soft borders that they become more and more meaningless the more that you look at it.

Ian Rowe:

It’s all narrative. It’s all amorphous where you say, “Well, it’s because you’re black that you inherently are doing badly,” or, “You are white. You’re inherently doing better.” But then, you start looking at data and you say, “Well, actually …” Another example, the racial wealth gap often seen as proof. The average white family has about $160,000 greater net wealth than the average black family. That’s from the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances. And that’s proof of both historical oppression and current oppression. But if you take into account just two factors, family structure and education level, the average married college-educated black family has about $160,000 greater wealth than the average white single-parent family.

So it’s like, “Huh? Okay. Maybe there are factors outside of race that really make a huge difference.” And in education, the number one factor that really drives student outcomes, you know what it is? Number of hours spent studying, right?

Inez Stepman:

Work hard, be nice.

Ian Rowe:

Yes, so that’s why we got to blow up these narratives. And when we say this, haters will say, “See, they’re denying systemic racism exists.” No, no, no, we’re just saying it’s not that there aren’t issues around race or racism, it’s just that when we start to articulate this mono causality, that’s the only thing that matters, that’s the only determinant and you just ignore mountains of evidence of the factors that really drive human flourishing, then you are denying the very young people who need hope and agency and all these things, knowledge around studying and patterns of family formation, these factors that really drive outcomes. You’re being dishonest when we don’t share that.

And it really frustrates me when I see really successful people who literally have done all of these things in their own lives, gotten their own education, have a faith commitment, gotten work, had children within marriage, and yet, never, never preaching what they practice in their own lives.

Inez Stepman:

Well, you can read all about those factors that Ian was talking about, the factors that drive human flourishing in his book “Agency: The Four Point Plan (F.R.E.E.) for All Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power.” Ian Rowe, thank you so much for joining us today on High Noon.

Ian Rowe:

Inez, so great to hang out with you.

Inez Stepman:

And thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum. As always, you can send comments and questions to [email protected]. Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us a comment or review on Apple Podcast, Acast, Google Play, YouTube and iwf.org. Be brave and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.

Ian Rowe:

I love it. Be brave. Yes.