Agency and Empowering Individuals: A Conversation with Ian Rowe and Scott Barry Kaufman
I had the opportunity at a recent event to host a conversation on stage with Ian Rowe and Scott Barry Kaufman. Ian is 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, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and CEO of Vertex Partnership Academies, a network of charter high schools. Scott is a humanistic psychologist, the host of the Psychology Podcast, and the author of 10 books, including Choose Growth, which debuts in September, and Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization. I hope you enjoy what was a very lively and informative conversation.
Michael Horn: What we really want to talk about as we do this live today is unpacking a lot of these themes that you both write so eloquently about and the importance of developing all individuals in our society. And so I want to start with the name of your book, “Agency,” because it's a concept all three of us have written quite a lot about. And you have a definition in it, Ian, which I'll quote: "Agency is more than free will. It is free will guided by a moral sense of right and wrong." It's a different definition from the one I think most of us think about when we hear agency. So I want to start with you unpacking that definition of why you chose to write it that way, what it is and isn't. And then Scott, I'd love you to jump in with your own way of thinking about agency.
Ian Rowe: Yeah. Well, thank you, Michael and Scott. Great to be with you and be with everyone this morning. As you mentioned, I'm launching a network of schools, but I've run schools in the heart of the South Bronx in the lower east side of Manhattan for the last decade, elementary and middle schools and now we're launching high school. And the reason I run schools is I want young people, our students to know that they can do hard things, that there are pathways to success even given their current circumstance. And what I've witnessed though in the last few years, but especially accelerated in the last one or two years, have been these narratives that in my view are robbing young people of this sense that they can do hard things. It's robbing them of this sense of agency.
And so there are these two meta narratives that I've really identified what I call blame the system and blame the victim. In the blame the system narrative, that's a view of America that says America itself is flawed and rigged against you. Based on your race, your class, your gender, you're inherently going to be oppressed in this country. There's a white supremacist lurking on every corner. Capitalism itself is evil, and these systems are so rigged against you that you are essentially powerless to do anything unless there's some massive government intervention or some other societal transformation. And on the other side is blame the victim that in that narrative, America's great. America's the land of opportunity. If you're not successful, you are the problem. You are the architect of your own failure. You didn't pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. And of course, that ignores the challenge when a kid is born into an unstable family or lacks a faith commitment or doesn't have access to school choice.
So both of these narratives in my view just kill the ability of young people to see, what is my pathway to a self-determined life? And so rather than just shouting in the rain, I thought important to create the empowering alternative, which I do define as agency, the force of your free will guided by moral discernment. The force of your free will guided by moral discernment. So this idea that all of us have the ability to make independent decisions, but where does the ability to become morally discerning come from? And so that's the importance of important local institutions, family, religion, education, and entrepreneurship. We can go into each of those, but I believe if more young people were to learn the power of embracing those four pillars in their own lives, we'd usher in a whole new age of agency and self-actualization.
Scott Barry Kaufman: Wow. That was so interesting because you opened up a lot of can worms for us cognitive scientists who studies philosophy of mind who doesn't really believe we have free will.
Rowe: You don't believe in free will?
Kaufman: In the ultimate sense, I feel like we could have a whole conversation about does people’s will exist? Could be a separate conversation.
Horn: The world just got more interesting than I thought.
Kaufman: Yes. So much of what you just said was so interesting to me ultimately, but I do believe we have, in our day to day lives, we do have agency and we do have the capacity to learn from our mistakes. We have the capacity to error correct, to plan for the future meticulously so that we can't plan all the things that are going to come. But the more we can plan, the less likely we are to be affected by it. The fact that you include morality as well in your definition is also fascinating. So literally everything you just said to me, my brain is on fire. And I'm like, which thread do I pick up?
Put free will one to the side, but the one about including morality, so that's not necessarily how I've thought about it, but I could definitely be persuaded for that. I've thought about it just more simply as do you feel like you're the author of your own life? Do you feel like you are, in a conventional self-determined sense, like self-determination theory within psychology, do you feel like you have autonomy? And autonomy to me includes not just external constraints, but our own internal barriers that we have, such as our lack of self-belief, our lack of... So for me, self-advocacy is a big part of agency, especially among kids in special ed, which is the kind of population I've been trying to help. Yeah.
Rowe: Interesting. I do believe that there are constraints on free will. Think of free will as a vector or velocity, where velocity is not just speed. It's speed and direction. And constraints are good, because there are many people with free will that do all sorts of bad things. So the question is, what's the context in which young people are learning how to exercise their free will to their own self betterment?
Horn: It's interesting because I haven't added that moral component either, but I've also thought that agency is something that you develop in young people. You (Scott) talk a lot about how hope is not necessarily a natural state in the book, that you build that in people over time as well. And I've seen it similarly. Sometimes in education, we fall back on these monikers of just voice and choice and that is equal to agency, and that's not how I see it. I see it as you actually see evidence that your actions can impact your trajectory and those around you in the ways that you want to bend it, and that's developing agency over time. And my argument has been context matters a big deal in that, because in our current system of education, you sit for a number of minutes in a seat, you have a lesson delivered to you.
And then honestly, regardless of the effort and work you put in, the next day you show up, you're on a different lesson. After three weeks, you're on a different unit, and you don't actually see the value of your hard work and mastering something as being the thing that pushes you along and actually gives you agency, I would argue, along. And so the context really undermines that. I hadn't thought about the moral component and moral dimension in that, but you obviously talk a lot, both of you, about context. Scott, let me go to you on this one, just because you talk about context of some people being born into these hardships that Ian writes about, single parent families and things of that nature, where some of those skills actually might be to your advantage if we can see them as their own kind of intelligence, and schools could lean in on that a little bit and develop that part of it. I'd love you just to explicate that, because that was a new idea for me.
Kaufman: Oh yeah. I see where you're going with that. Yeah. Well, I think that there's an extreme movement where we want to reinterpret everything that is a hardship in life and reinterpret it as a gift. And I don't go to that extreme, but I do think that there is some recent research coming out that shows that people that grow up in very chaotic environments where there's maybe a lot of violence in their environment or there's lack of meaning, like coherence, they can't predict anything in their environment, they actually can gain some skills that can be an advantage in a school system. Your ability for being able to read people's emotions, your ability to be able to... They do all these kind of cognitive tasks and they find that people that grow up in those kinds of environments actually have advantages in very specific niches and ability to predict things and street smarts. My advisor, Robert Sternberg, distinguished between street smarts and IQ type smarts, and that's seems to be an interesting distinction to be made.
Horn: Can you say a little bit more about, yeah, what is a street smart versus IQ-
Kaufman: Practical intelligence. I guess you would call it practical intelligence, your ability to become a good business person, your ability in the social world, your ability to understand the tacit implicit knowledge of things as opposed to the explicit knowledge that is required on tests.
Horn: Ian, I'd love your take as someone who runs schools.
Rowe: Yeah. So context, that absolutely matters. And in the schools I lead, we have kids who are born into exactly the kinds of chaotic situations, single parenthood, as well as married two parent households as well. The question is when we see kids who are in these environments, some emerge completely dysfunctional and others emerge thriving and able to achieve. What makes the difference? And the reason I wrote my book is that in my observation, it has usually been the presence of local, mediating institutions like strong families, strong faith commitment, and access to great schools that have usually laid the foundation that even if I'm born into a chaotic environment, my context is now something I can manage. My context is something that I have more control in my ability to thrive and make good decisions, even if in the house next door that has, on its surface anyway, the same conditions, the kid is not successful. And so that's why agency is individually practiced, but socially empowered. We cannot ignore the power of local institutions to shape my ability to handle my context, however on the surface it might seem hostile to my dreams.
Kaufman: Can I put off that idea of empowerment? Because I really like that a lot. I do believe that agency can be activated in a really strong way if it was dormant before. I personally experienced that as a child. I was in special ed up until ninth grade and there was a moment where I was very inspired to take myself out of the whole system and to challenge everything. And then from that day forward, I had this agency I didn't even know I had. So I guess my point, which I think is very in line with what you're saying, is sometimes we have this deep reservoir of agency we didn't even know we had.
Rowe: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. But my thing is I wanted to be deliberate. It sounds like it happened for you and it just happened, as opposed to we know these things. And so how do we become more intentional about creating an intersection with these institutions that we know that you can have that epiphany moment? I had a similar one at 12 years old as a function of my family. But we know the institutions that can help shape young people's beliefs and their ability in their capacity to achieve, and yet I think we just leave it at random. So it might have happened. Imagine if you hadn't had that epiphany moment.
Kaufman: My whole career is trying to find those triggers and systematic and I feel like we're on the same page. Yeah.
Horn: I'd love you both to reflect on how we don't make it happenstance and luck. And Ian, I want to quote again from the book where you said, "Pure self-reliance is a myth," which is a very powerful statement. And then you go on to say, "Individuals do not develop such dogged self-determination until someone or some institution first helps them grasp that their effort is integral to advancing toward that goal basically that they have."
Rowe: Yeah. That's these blame the victim, blame the system narratives that, "Well, you should have just pulled yourself up by the bootstraps." No. Pure self-reliance is a myth. And my concern is that young people are hearing these messages. I'll take one example of Nikole Hannah-Jones, who's the lead author of the New York Times 1619 Project. She wrote an 8,000 word essay in the New York Times magazine basically saying that black people have no ability to close a racial wealth gap without a 14, $15 trillion reparations program. And in this essay, she says, "It doesn't matter what a Black person does. Doesn't matter if you buy a home, doesn't matter if you get married, doesn't matter if you get educated, doesn't matter if you save. None of those things can overcome 400 years of racialized plundering."
Just think about that. And imagine teachers who adopt that ideology and are sending this message to kids. And by the way, Nikole Hannah-Jones has done all of those things in her own life to lead a quite prosperous life, just as an important aside. Just the point being that these messages of, "You should have pulled yourself up by the bootstraps," or, "It doesn't matter what you do. Someone else has to come to be your savior," all of these narratives ignore the power of agency. But establishing that, we can't ignore the importance of the institutions that help you build personal agency.
Horn: That resonates from my perspective and it defies the sense of the systemic weight of things around you that cause you to be unable to act, firstly. And secondly, my mentor, Clay Christensen, often was saying, when you're looking for an explanation of why something doesn't work in a particular area, find the anomalies and then say what's different about that. And so there's tons of anomalies to the Nikole Hannah-Jones statement with all of these Black individuals who have gotten married, who've gotten the education, including her, and lead very good lives. And it's important to study those anomalies to say, "Actually, what causes those people to be able to lift themselves out." And then as a result, I think, the logical extension is, what do the institutions around these individuals do differently to create more opportunities for that?
Kaufman: Yeah. I think there's some really interesting questions to unpack there as to what extent do individual differences matter. Some people do have more of a perseverance, conscientiousness as a personality trait I study. That does have a genetic basis to a certain degree. So I feel like on the one hand, we surely don't want to say it's all agency. But other hand, I think we'd be remiss if we didn't say in the predictive variables what explains one person or another to completely leave out that personality variables do matter that are influenced by genes to a certain extent. That shouldn't be controversial at all.
Rowe: Right. But do you think conscientiousness, so while there might be a genetic connection, do you think it's learnable, even if a kid doesn't?
Kaufman: Yes, absolutely. And I think that's a great myth about using the dirty word genes is that it means that you can never change. We're just talking about inclinations. I don't want to give up on anyone. I'm the least person in the world to say that we only select certain people who score a certain cutoff on a conscientiousness score. But with that said, in my predictive models and trying to understand how do we predict who goes ahead and who doesn't, some people do have this kind of personality trait of a personal initiative that can't be purely explained by external factors, if that makes sense.
Horn: So I think that actually takes the conversation exactly where I want to go to, which is the power of the individual and the question of individualization in our schools versus standardization. It seems to me one of the, I don't know if pushback is the right word, but one of the key tensions in this conversation is what should be learned commonly by all or most students as they're growing up? And where do you start to allow individuals to follow strengths, passions, interests, things of that nature? And I'm just curious how you both think about that tension about what's common versus what's individual and school's role in customizing or not around those things.
Kaufman: I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.
Horn: Yeah, Ian, go ahead.
Rowe: Yeah. It's a good question, because education is very disaggregated system, but E. D. Hirsch wrote about this many years ago where he basically posited that any society or every society has a core body of knowledge that is assumed. If you read a newspaper, there aren't 3,000 word articles because the writers are compacting because they're making assumptions about things you should know if you make a reference to the declaration of independence or George Washington. But if you're on the periphery of that body of knowledge and you haven't been taught it, then that has deep consequences for you to be able to participate fully in that society.
And so he, E. D. Hirsch, actually created the dictionary of cultural literacy and it was, in my view, an amazing book and he was attacked for it. It was not inclusive enough and all this. But at some point, and it's hard to do in the United States because there are arguments constantly over what's in and what's out of the core body of knowledge, but it exists. Even in the design of our high school, we are creating what we believe is an incredible canon of books that we think every kid coming out of high school should have read to be not just functioning, but to thrive in our community.
Kaufman: I just think things like critical thinking skills are not being taught in... There are things that just definitely are not being taught as a common core that we desperately need in our society right now. Imagine if school children actually had exercises where they engage with people who are so very different from them who have completely different ideas. There's just a whole bunch of things we're not setting children up for in the real world that I think is missing.
Horn: I was just going to briefly say... Sorry. It's interesting. In my book, From Reopen to Reinvent, what I talk a lot about is we need to think deliberately about the knowledge that we want all individuals to learn and we need to have these conversations, I think, in a way that we're not in the individual schooling communities, because I suspect that there's a common strand that is across the country. I suspect it's smaller than we sometimes expect, and then I suspect that there's a common strand in a state, in a community that you also want people to know and be able to work with.
And by the way, then skills and habits of success are next on my rungs, and not in an order. They're interdependent in my view. But you can't learn critical thinking without having a deep reservoir of knowledge to think critically about. And I think sometimes, in the education world, we fall back and we say, "Oh, critical thinking is this thing that we identify as a skills based thing." A, we haven't rigorously identified what skills we do. And B, we should be practicing them deliberately as we go across bases of knowledge so that individuals can actually transfer them as they come up that novice to expert spectrum, if you will, as they master knowledge.
Rowe: No, that's exactly the point I was going to make, because the need for develop critical thinking skills and the need to build that core body of knowledge are intertwined. And oftentimes, somehow they're put at odds with one another. Yeah. What is it that we want kids to critically think about? Let's have that be the great works. Broadly defined, but let's design, what is it that we want kids to know when they're leaving our schools and then how to critically think about it? And to divorce those two thing, unfortunately, I see often being done in K-12 education.
Horn: Well, and I agree with that. I think someone that I work a lot with, Diane Tavenner who runs Summit Public Schools, she talks a lot about no single use tools in the kitchen, no single use tools in the school either. When you're teaching knowledge, you should also be teaching skills and agency and executive function and all these other things that are critical to someone, not just passing through school, but thriving in life.
Rowe: Yeah. And think of the great characters that you can read about that are grappling with real issues that you can then bring into the classroom. It's amazing.
Horn: Yeah. No, I agree with that.
Kaufman: I love Diane.
Horn: Yeah, no, she's a wonderful human who's taught me a lot about all these. So I want to turn to your books and your work, both of you, in the time that we have remaining, because I'm curious. There's a lot written about both of you. There's a lot written about your scholarship. There's a lot written about the work that you do with kids. What's most misunderstood about what you have written or the work that you do that's out there right now? And I want to ask it that way because I think sometimes, we all become caricatures outside and you get to correct the record, if you will.
Kaufman: May I?
Horn: Yeah. Go, Scott. Yeah.
Kaufman: This one's very interesting. It's very nuanced. But sometimes, I wrote a book called Ungifted, and when I'm put on interviews, immediately, I'm put in this I'm anti-IQ camp. They're like, "Oh, Scott, tell us why IQ tests are terrible and why you want to change." My actual view is a little more nuanced, which is I'm not anti-IQ. I'm just anti measuring every individual by one standardized metric and to the extent to which you deviate from that standardized metric, because then to which you deviate from some ideal of human potential. That's what I'm really against. But I'm not anti-IQ and I believe that in fact, a lot of kids who are intellectually gifted are really falling between the wayside in our education systems, especially a lot of people are cutting gifted education programs. I'm an advocate for gifted education. So I think that'd be one of the biggest ones that people assume I'm like anti-gifted. I'm anti excellence. I'm not anti-excellence at all. I want all children to have the opportunity to be excellent in their own way.
Horn: Yeah. Ian, what about you?
Rowe: I think because I write about agency and the power to overcome challenges, somehow for some people, that means that I'm not acknowledging structural barriers that may exist. I'll say often, look, sure, there's structural racism, there's institutional racism, there's systemic racism, but there's also surmountable racism. And the reason it's important to say that is that you can acknowledge that a kid will face barriers in their own life, but they are not so debilitating that you lose your ability to overcome. That is the central message. And so that's in my view, the kind of lazy pushback I often receive.
Horn: No, that makes sense. I'm curious what you both are most excited about in education at the moment. When you look out at the landscape, what has you on fire saying, "This is something that's promising. We ought to do more of this."
Kaufman: Do you want?
Rowe: Well, at the moment, I'm very excited to be on the verge of breaking the stranglehold that unions have on opening great high schools in New York City. Yeah. So we're launching what'll be an international baccalaureate high school in the Bronx, and this is a district where only 7% of kids that start ninth grade four years later graduate from high school ready for college. The numbers are just staggering. And within this school, there'll be multiple pathways at the end of sophomore year. You can choose a college or university pathway, or you can choose a careers pathway. At the end of four years of high school, you can have a credential in computer science, something related to architecture, even phlebotomy that we're working with the Mayo Clinic. I think high school is this final frontier where we have to... The whole college for all mentality. You can talk about we're against the whole one size fits all.
Well, that's a big one that we need to break, but we need high schools to create multiple pathways of equal stature that you can go to college if that's your pathway and prepare for that, or prepare for industry in a way that's real. And the reason that the unions are suing us is that they recognize that this kind of model, I think, and the governance structure that we've set up is threatening to their stranglehold. I'm very excited that when we win, and we will, incredible education entrepreneurs can open great high schools for not only kids in New York City, but the model can be replicated then across the country.
Horn: Scott, what about you?
Kaufman: Yeah. I'm really excited about the idea of scaling up this idea that every child has a coach or someone that believes in them and feels scaling up this whole idea of, how can we inspire all children to realize their potential? Been working with this organization called The Future Project. I don't know if either of you have heard of it where they have an actual position in the school of the dream director. So any child can go to the office of the dream director and tell them what their dream is and they help them find resources to enact that. And then I've been trying to create a self-actualization coaching program for teachers so that they think of themselves in the classroom as self-actualization coaches. And what would that look like for the teachers actually to be trained in the science of human potential? So that's why I'm excited about it. Yeah.
Rowe: So there's a position called dream director.
Kaufman: Yeah, yeah, yeah. They ask the school psychologist and they bring in... No, I'm joking about that, but they bring in the dream director. Yeah.
Horn: I love it. These are how good ideas start to spread. Now we have some ideas that we're going to carry ourselves. I will say briefly what I'm most excited about at the moment is parents feeling like they have choice in education and that they're acting on it. And I think either the system will stop treating students and families as one size fits all as a result or we're going to see a lot more entrepreneurship with a lot more opportunities and options that fit the priorities and needs and circumstances of the students and parents as they need to make progress in their lives. So I'm excited about that. Last word as we wrap up here. I'm curious. Stakeholders are trying to figure out how they can lean in and be helpful to the sorts of things that we've talked about and overthrow this one size fits all system. For business leaders specifically, what would you say, "Lean in on here. It could really help and make a difference right now."
Rowe: Not to, again, promote the high school structure that we are creating, but I think a lot of businesses would benefit from investing in models at the high school level that, again, treat a college pathway and an industry pathway of equal stature. Because it often turns out that a lot of businesses, even when kids come out of college, they're spending all this money to retrain them in industry specific areas. Why not allow that choice to be made by a student in high school at the end of sophomore year where they have more time to be trained in particular industries? It would seem that businesses would be interested in that kind of model.
Kaufman: I'd like to see businesses be able to offer more resources to those who could help inspire children. So for instance, a child has a dream mentor. Being able to actually get the resources to have that person mentor the child and also get the child the resources to actually enact a very significant project that might be apart from the standard curriculum they're learning.
Horn: I love both of those. And I'll say what they share in common, I think, is businesses starting to integrate more into the lives and education of these individuals to give them opportunities. And frankly, it's in the interest of the businesses too. They get folks working on projects that are meaningful to them and develop them as the future pipeline of talent for them. When I spent time in South Korea studying their education system, I was really struck by these Meister high schools that they were starting, where literally it's co-located with a semiconductor plant. And you have cutting edge technology, fab technology, where these individuals have chosen, the students have chosen, I want to work in this, and with an ex-CEO of a semiconductor company as the school principal. What message does that send?
Rowe: That's great.
Horn: Anyway, thank you so much. Ian, Scott, thank you all. This is has been fun. This has been fun and thank you for joining us on another episode of The Future of Education.