Transcript: Ian Rowe
My conversation with the American educator, entrepreneur and author
With school back in session for the year, it’s a good time to take a look at the lessons that we’re passing on to the next generation of children.
Are we giving them the tools that they need to succeed in life?
My guest on the program today thinks there’s room for improvement. And his new book takes aim at the “blame the system” and “blame the victim” cultural narratives that he believes impede kids’ ability to recognize, and harness, their own agency.
Ian Rowe is an educator and entrepreneur, and the founder of Vertex Partnership Academies. He’s a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a visiting fellow at the Woodson Center. He’s also on the board of advisors for the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism. His new book is Agency.
This edited transcript is for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Ian, welcome to Lean Out.
IR: Well, Tara, thank you very much for having me. I’m looking forward to our conversation.
TH: As am I. Your book was so interesting, covering subjects that I’ve been thinking about a lot, so I’m really excited to talk today. Let’s start by setting the stage here for listeners. How do you define agency — and why is overcoming a victimhood narrative so crucial for the success of the next generation of children?
IR: Well, Tara, thank you so much for having me on. And, yeah, that’s a great first question. Your listeners might know that I’ve run schools in the heart of the South Bronx, and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, for the last decade. And even before that, I have worked with kids in lots of different capacities — at Teach for America, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, even MTV, mobilizing millions of young people to take action. And, you know, I’ve had this sense over the years of what I think the factors are that really help young people to flourish, or not. And I’ve run schools for the last decade, because I want kids to know that they can do hard things. That there are pathways to success, even if there are challenges in their immediate environment. What I’ve sensed over the last few years — particularly accelerated in the last couple of years, at least in the United States — is this kind of victimhood narrative that that’s actually leading young people in particular to think that there are systems that are so oppressive, or so insurmountable, that they can’t succeed.
I have written my book Agency to provide a framework. That obstacles are going to appear. News flash: There will be challenges. But there are mechanisms and institutions that can support you. So I can give a brief overview of these two narratives that I think are impeding young people’s ability to have a sense of agency — and then get into my unique definition.
TH: Let’s start with this “blame the system” narrative. I thought you gave such a powerful excavation of that.
IR: So, there are these two meta-narratives. And, as you say, “blame the system” is the first one. The other is “blame the victim.” The blame the system narrative, that’s a view of the United States as an inherently oppressive nation. That based on your skin colour, your economic class, your gender — any number of characteristics — you are behind the eight ball. You are oppressed. The system is rigged against you. You know, there’s a white supremacist lurking around every corner. Capitalism itself is evil. And that these systems are so rigged, so discriminatory, so powerful, that you as an individual are powerless. And that you have got to have some kind of massive government intervention in order for you to be successful. That’s obviously inherently disempowering, because you’re basically waiting for someone else, or some institution, to change its way of being before you can be successful.
But on the other side is what I call “blame the victim.” And there’s a scenario that if you’re not successful, it’s not America that’s the problem. America is great. America is the land of opportunity. If you’re not successful, it’s your fault. You should have pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps. Somehow you’re the architect of your own failure. You didn’t do what you should have done to take advantage of all these amazing opportunities. And of course the problem with that narrative is that it ignores what happens to kids. Perhaps they were born into an unstable family, or they weren’t supported by a faith-based community, or they didn’t have access to good schools through school choice. You know, it’s really hard to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps when you don’t have those kinds of foundations in life.
These two meta-narratives — of blame the victim and blame the system — add up to a singular lie that robs young people of the ability, and the belief, that they can lead a self-determined life. So that’s why I thought we needed a new framework. It’s not enough just to describe a problem, and shout in the rain. So, my definition of agency is the force of your free will guided by moral discernment. I think about agency as like a vector, or velocity. Where velocity is not just speed, it’s direction.
If each one of us has the ability to make decisions, and we’ve got free will, how do we exercise that power? Because there are lots of people with free will that make pretty horrific decisions, right? So where does the ability to become morally-discerning come from? That’s where I introduce my framework, F.R.E.E. — family, religion, education, and entrepreneurship. We can go each through each of the four. These are the pillars that I think if more young people were to embrace, the predominant narrative out there of victimhood would be overcome by young people’s own belief that they don’t have to be victims. That they can be victors in their own life.
TH: So interesting. Before we get to that framework, I want to go back to the blame the system narrative for a moment. We’ve been talking about Critical Race Theory on the podcast. How does the blame the system narrative get informed by Critical Race Theory? And how much is Critical Race Theory actually being taught in schools?
IR: Yeah, so Critical Race Theory was created by these architects, Richard Delgado, Jean Stefancic, part of something called Critical Theory. If you look at their actual definitions, Critical Race Theory questions the very precepts of our country — like equal protection under the law, or this whole idea of a blind constitution. Essentially what Critical Race Theory posits is that every institution in America is born in slavery and racial discrimination.
The New York Times 1619 project — which was in some ways the embodiment of Critical Race Theory — actually says that America has anti-Black racism running in the very DNA of the country. Think about that statement. If it’s DNA, that is intrinsic, that is central. And so when you think about blame the system, CRT basically says if you’re Black, the entire system is rigged against you. And anytime there’s a gap in outcomes, let’s say in reading, or in incarceration rates, it has nothing to do with individual behaviour, or other factors. It all has to do with this anti-Black racism. It must be due to racial discrimination. Any gap. There’s one explanation for every negative outcome. And that one explanation is: Racism. That means that when you’re trying to think of solutions, let’s say in trying to close racial achievement gaps, if you think the problem is racism, then it must be racist teachers or racist systems. So therefore, the solution has to be related to race as well. That’s why you see anti-bias training explode. People are saying you have got to drive the racism out of teachers. Or you see kids being separated in these things called privilege walks. Have you ever heard of a privilege walk?
TH: Yes, I have.
IR: It’s amazing. Some of your listeners may not know, but imagine you take a whole group of kids, line them up. And the teacher says, “If you’re white, take two steps forward. If you’re Black, take five steps backward.” By the end of it, all the white, more wealthy, male kids are standing at the front end. At the back are all the Black, more low-income boys. And it’s supposed to somehow demonstrate your victimization. Or if you were at the other part of the class, you know, codify your privilege. When there are all sorts of assumptions being made. So Critical Race Theory is an embodiment of blame the system — because in their mind, the advocates of that have no other explanation other than racial discrimination.
So, when you ask, is it being taught in schools? It’s unlikely you’re going to hear Jean Stefancic spoken about in first grade. [Laughs] The theory is not being spoken about. And, frankly, I’m actually an advocate for discussing the theory in higher education. Look, we should be able to talk about Critical Race Theory, communism, capitalism, and have informed debates about whether or not these are ways of being. But what we do know, though, is in K to 12 schools, there are practices that are inspired by Critical Race Theory, such things as privilege walks. Or professional development training. Where literally white teachers will be sent to one room, and all non-white teachers sent to another room. And the white teachers have to have a struggle session where they declare their inherent privilege and that there are oppressors. I mean, this is happening across the country.
So, Critical Race Theory is not, as a theory, being taught generally in K to 12. But the practices often are, and they are destructive — not only to white kids but Black kids. In Evanston, Illinois, there was a class being taught, where I think they were doing a privilege walk. And in the lesson plan, it said it was designed to teach the white kids about their inherent privilege. Like, what are we trying to do, literally create white supremacists?
There are people who say, “It’s all a sham.” No. Critical Race Theory is not being taught, but the practices certainly are. And it can be very destructive to kids.
TH: I’m curious, taking this down to a practical level, you did serve as a CEO of a network of charter schools in the Bronx for a decade. I’m curious about this blame the system narrative and the blame the victim narrative — and what would the repercussions on your students be, on a practical level.
IR: Oh, yeah. I just mentioned the 1619 project, and this message of America being this oppressive nation. If you hear over, and over, and over, and over, and over again how victimized you are, or how oppressed you are, or how the system is rigged against you, after a while, you’re going to start to believe it.
Let’s take Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead author of The New York Times 1619 project. She wrote an 8,000-word piece in The New York Times Magazine. And the basic premise of the piece is that America has been racist for hundreds of years, oppressive to Black people. And there’s no way to close the racial wealth gap, unless there’s a 14 or 15 trillion-dollar reparations program.
In this piece, she says it doesn’t matter what a Black person does. Doesn’t matter if you get married, doesn’t matter if you buy a home, doesn’t matter if you save, doesn’t matter if you’re college-educated. None of those things can overcome 400 years of racialized plundering. I mean, just think about that. The 1619 project has been adopted in schools in some of the worst performing school districts across the country. Chicago, Rochester, Buffalo.
By the way, it’s important to note, Nikole Hannah-Jones, in her own personal life, has done all four of those things — to lead quite a prosperous life. And yet somehow wants to deprive us of teaching that to young people. This is why I fight it in my own schools. The very last thing we want to be telling young people is that these systems are so overwhelming that they’ve got no shot.
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