Agency: The Four Point Plan (F.R.E.E.) for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power
By Ian V. Rowe.
Templeton Press, 2022.
Hardcover, 304 pages, $24.95.

Reviewed by Rachel Ferguson.

The debate over moral agency—whether it exists, who has it, and how it works—lies at the heart of any approach to law and policy. In his latest book, Agency,  Ian Rowe makes an interesting argument to ground his four-part plan for the flourishing of those on the side-lines of the American dream: part of having agency is knowing you have it, and our young people need this information. He quotes William James early on: “The first thing I did with my free will was choose to believe in free will.” While Rowe’s purposes are eminently practical, they align well with the wisdom of thinkers like Thomas Aquinas on how human choice really works. Consequently, Rowe’s practical insights, gleaned from years in philanthropy and in the charter school scene, show us how to support the moral agency of our most struggling youth, neither yielding to the extreme of social determinism more typical on the left nor to the hyper-individualism that has begun to characterize much of the right. In a refreshingly non-partisan manifesto, Rowe demonstrates that close examination of human nature, it turns out, provides the best means to understand and facilitate human flourishing for the least well-off among us.

This book is highly constructive; it is no mere anti-CRT screed. But Rowe is deeply concerned that the rising ideologies of Critical Race Theory and third wave anti-racism are leading to a kind of hopeless pedagogy. It is true that graduate level legal theory is not taught in elementary schools, but it is also true that Critical Pedagogy has captured the university schools of education. Rather than teaching the theory straightforwardly, educators are trained to frame their lessons to affirm the claims of CRT: the historical injustice against Black Americans and other minorities means that the American liberal order is a failed experiment; those who have been shut out of the economic system in the past will not be able to break in since capitalism is constructed to increase inequality between the classes; and racial minorities and women cannot be liberated unless they team up with sexual and gender minorities too—so old-fashioned or religious convictions about such things will have to go. 

One might wonder whether Rowe is right to be concerned; after all, if kids can hardly remember the dates of World War II, should we really think that they’re taking in these subtle digs on traditional American values? Recently, a charter school leader told me that he asked his all-Black inner-city students how many Black people they thought lived in poverty in America. They said 95%. Yes, of course, some of their confusion might come from their own isolation in a high-poverty area. But surely the teachers they had prior to moving schools could have mentioned that the majority of Black Americans are middle-class, that while Blacks are over-represented under the poverty line there are also three times as many poor white people as poor Black people in the United States, or simply that 80% of Black Americans are not poor. What’s more, most of the progress was made from 1948-1966, when the Black poverty rate plummeted from 89% to 41%. This means that, not only are most Blacks not poor, but they also haven’t been poor for several generations. All of this to say, these kids should be taught about their ancestors’ horrific trials, but not without the counterweight of their successes along with hope for the future. The idea that ‘the system is just against us’ could stop young people from choosing the routes out of poverty that do exist.

Some, particularly those who wear ash-colored glasses when it comes to American history, might worry that Rowe’s ‘agency’ is just a feint, a kind of psychological trick to get genuinely oppressed kids to believe that their possibilities are better than they are. Sure, it might work with a few here or there, but only at the cost of the truth, as well as complicity with the system that keeps down the majority of Black citizens. So we really have to do two things: 1) demonstrate that the concept of agency is not, in fact, a trick, and 2) demonstrate that ‘the system’ actually offers tons of very real opportunities for kids from impoverished backgrounds, and that the struggle to take hold of them has less to do with current oppression and more to do with destabilized families and neighborhoods. That does not have to involve “blaming the victim,” by the way. Much of this destabilization was in fact caused by real oppression in the past, in the form of red-lining, eminent domain abuse through the building of the federal highway system and urban renewal, entrapment in a perverse welfare system, and racist exclusion from the unions (see Chapters 7, 8, & 9 in Black Liberation Through the Marketplace for more on these tragedies of progressive social engineering). After all, do any of us really believe that a huge cohort of Black America just suddenly decided in 1970 that they were going to stop getting married? Even dyed-in-the-wool conservatives argue that the externally imposed perverse incentives of the Great Society caused that shift. But neither do we need to “blame the system” in the sense that we communicate a message of hopelessness and despair, particularly when we are now dealing with the consequences of that historical oppression, but not necessarily with current systematic oppression. So how does agency really work?

Thomas Aquinas’s term for ‘free will’ was actually liberum arbitrium: freedom of judgment. Human beings are creatures with reason and will: the will desires the good, the reason collects data; the will pays attention to the data and chooses the best route to the good. Of course, a corrupt will can ignore good options, which is one way things can go wrong. But part of living in a fallen world is that we are also not always equipped with the relevant information to make the right decision, and this is especially true of young people. Rowe’s account admits that people can be limited in their field of vision for their own lives by oppression, poverty, an unstable home life, and many other things. But new information actually can make all the difference by opening up a new avenue of action for the will. Contrary to popular belief, free will is not the ability to act outside of one’s character or experience at the moment of decision. Rather it is freedom of judgment: if I have new information I can reevaluate my choice, try something new next time, and therefore change my own character over time through action, thus becoming the kind of person who naturally makes better choices.

Rowe spends most of the book on the importance of family structure. The famous “success sequence” —graduate from high school, get married, and then have kids—has its issues. First, we might wonder to what extent the people who do these things in the “right” order were going to be successful anyway. Rowe is convinced that we can turn correlation into causation if we incorporate the success sequence into our educational models. Part of the reason he is so sure about this flows from his experience with his students. It is not simply that the kids in our toughest neighborhoods come from single-parent homes or have lower graduation rates; it is that many of these students are not sure that shooting for the goals of graduation and marriage prior to having children could make all the difference in the likelihood that they remain in poverty as adults. While some people who follow the success sequence were going to be successful anyway, some of this account is definitely causal. After all, having two earners in a household (or one earner and a career that allows one to avoid expensive child-care costs) straightforwardly increases household income. 

Marriage also seems to actually increase stability in people’s lives, as opposed to merely being the kind of thing already stable people do. We can see this in the case of men, who—at least statistically speaking— shift their behavior significantly after marriage. This includes things like regular doctor’s visits, driving more safely, and eating a healthier diet. Not to tattle on my own dear husband, but the man had not seen a dentist for a decade when we met, and he now sees doctors and dentists regularly because, like most loving wives everywhere, I nag him. The upshot of all this is that while we can be sensitive to the concern that the success sequence confuses correlation and causation, I do not think we can entirely dismiss real causal effects of choosing to follow it, even for people who are coming from less stable backgrounds. Including the success sequence and its beneficial results in children’s education really does open up possibilities for them that they might not otherwise have. One young man of my acquaintance was taken in as an 11-year-old by a loving family that had moved to his very tough neighborhood to help stabilize it. He remembers walking into the living room and seeing dad, mom, and their four children around the dinner table. He could not recall seeing an intact family sitting around the dinner table before, and was suddenly struck with the intense desire to have such a life for himself. He jumped into the program they were offering with both feet and did practically everything that was suggested to him. Today he is in college and has a job he loves, with a bright future.

Notice what the story above requires. First, new information, which came in the form of witnessing, in the flesh and in his own neighborhood, the life of love he longed for. Second, he stepped directly into a web of support right away, taking advantage of a pipeline of charitable living situations and programs, to get to where he is today. While Rowe is careful to be balanced, I want to doubly ensure that conservatives recommending education on the success sequence are sensitive to the ways it can work and the ways it cannot. After all, we all know that the deep desire for a sense of belonging and for male mentorship is often the draw for boys to join gangs in tough neighborhoods. Similarly, the deep desire for purpose, meaning, and maybe even for someone who will not leave us, may be the driver behind young women having babies outside of wedlock. If that coping mechanism for the trauma often experienced in destabilized neighborhoods and homes is stubborn enough, young women will have these babies even when the fathers of these babies are, quite simply, not marriage material. 

All of this to say, I agree wholeheartedly that the success sequence ought to be taught in school. But at the same time, we must rebuild a sense of family, of meaning, and yes, of unconditional love and commitment, among these young people if we expect them to be able to follow through on our seemingly simple advice. This is what happened for my young friend. That is why Rowe also emphasizes the role of religion in stabilizing our lives, and why Marcus Witcher and I spend a whole section of our book, Black Liberation Through the Marketplace, discussing the neighborhood stabilization model of philanthropy. This model employs a holistic, hyper-local, and deeply personal approach to healing in destabilized neighborhoods. Hat tip here to the prophets of this movement, all men of deep faith: Robert Lupton, Brian Fikkert, Bob Woodson, and of course, the great John Perkins.

I cannot more highly recommend Agency. Particularly in these hyper-polarized times, conservatives should be the first to break out of the blame-the-system-versus-blame-the-victim false dichotomy. If anyone should affirm that family, church, school, and community help to form individuals so that they can truly flourish, it is conservatives. Let us follow Rowe’s example and lean into building and revitalizing the institutions that will nourish the minds and souls of our young people, even in the (apparently) darkest and most hopeless places. After all, “a light shone in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” 

Dr. Rachel Ferguson is co-author with Marcus Witcher of Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America. She is a professor at Concordia University Chicago, Assistant Dean of the College of Business, Director of the Free Enterprise Center, and an affiliate scholar of the Acton Institute.

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