Is Marriage Important?
with John McWhorter and Ian Rowe
First, to answer the headline’s question: yes. Marriage is very important, and I would guess that most people in the country agree that it’s very important. But the real question is, if marriage is indeed important, why is it important? Researchers could point you to statistics that associate marriage with social and financial stability, with better outcomes for children, and with a host of other quantifiable benefits. We should take this body of research seriously, as it does suggest that people who get married and stay married, on the whole, do better than those who do not.
And yet, such research misses something important about marriage, something that can’t quite be captured by data. The lifelong commitment of two people to each other, bound in partnership and mutual support, is a good thing in itself. The vow that each partner makes to the other “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish” is one of the most consequential things two people can do. Very, very few people take this vow because they’ve read the research, crunched the numbers, and determined that marriage is the most rational course of action. Those who get married do it because it is—and I use this term in its ethical sense—good. Neither partner knows what life will throw at them henceforth, and yet they each make a spiritual commitment to sacrifice something of themselves in order to help the other, no matter the challenge. There is no other commitment on earth that carries such weight, except that of parents to their children.
In the following excerpt from my recent conversation with John McWhorter and Ian Rowe, I ask Ian to explain the place of marriage in the pedagogy of his charter schools, Vertex Enterprise Academies. I certainly think it’s a good thing that Ian’s students are being taught that marriage is an important part of leading a successful life. But I worry that, in viewing marriage as a stepping stone on the pathway to success, he treats marriage as a strategy rather than as a profound spiritual and ethical act. It can be both, of course, but if young people don’t understand the deep significance of the act, then they may find their later success rings hollow.
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GLENN LOURY: I want to ask you, what's so special about marriage?
IAN ROWE: What is so special about marriage?
Yeah. Isn't what matters—excuse me, just to amplify—the resources available to the child, the roles of parenting, which I mean, if you look at some of the Scandinavian countries, for example, where marital rates have fallen and out-of-wedlock birth rates are relatively high, you don't see the same kind of “pathology” as you see in lower-class minority American communities. Is it a spiritual point? Is it a normative point? A values point? Are you saying people are behaving better? What's so special about marriage?
IAN ROWE: You know, there is a values point. And I've become more certain or courageous in saying that that's part of the rationale. Like, it's not just economics. However economics do matter. You have two earners, two time providers, two love providers to children, which just make a difference relative to single-parent households. And it is not to be lost on people that in the black community, the poverty rate amongst married black people has been in the single digits for generations.
So you know, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who, again, I'm sure you all know well, one of your “People with Three Names,” lead author for the New York Times 1619 Project. She wrote, in her 8,000 word essay, “What Is Owed,” “It doesn't matter what black people can do, what they're told to do to lift themselves out of poverty. Doesn't matter if you get married, doesn't matter if you get educated, doesn't matter if you get a job, doesn't matter if you buy a home, doesn't matter if you save. None of those things can overcome 400 years of racialized plundering.” Now, of course the irony is Nikole Hannah-Jones has done all of those things in her own life and is leading quite a prosperous life. And good for her. Good for her. But to recognize the huge value that marriage has played, not only in the black community but across cultures, and what we're seeing now is the non-marital birth rate, particularly amongst women 24 and under is 71 percent across the country. It’s 61 percent in the white community. It’s devastating.
I think that’s too high.
IAN ROWE: You think that’s too high?
I don’t know the number right in front of me, but I believe 61 would be too high for whites. But we could look it up. It’s easy to check.
IAN ROWE: For women 24 and under.
Oh, okay. I’ll take your word for it.
IAN ROWE: Because my particular interest—this is an important point, because there’s a big difference today if there’s a 38-year-old woman who’s been working on Wall Street who’s decided to have a child. One can feel a certain way about that outcome. My particular interest is in young people who are making their passageway into young adulthood, the series of decisions, particularly between ages 15 and 24, that have lifelong consequences. So that’s why I look at 24 and under. And then for black women 24 and under, the non-marital birthrate is 91 percent. It’s 61 percent in the white community, 71 percent overall. These kind of numbers are just staggering. They need to be known, and we need to share what the consequences of those kinds of decisions lead to for the parent as well as the child.
So here’s an objection. I’m playing the devil’s advocate. Resourceful people, that is, people who have their shit together, people who are disciplined, people who have the ability of denial, of restraint, of orderly focus in their lives, do two things. They get and hold a job, because they’re resourceful people with skills. And they manage their interpersonal relationships such that they end up securing partners with whom they can have children. Both of those things are a consequence of the root cause, which is that people are resourceful, disciplined individuals. You need to cause people to be resourceful individuals before you can get either of those things. The association that you’re calling attention to, that married people do better, is a confounding of those two influences. The married people do better because married people “are” better. That is to say, they’re more effective, disciplined persons.
If I take a gang banger out of the Four Trade Disciples in Chicago living in a housing project, and I take an 18-year-old mother who didn't finish high school who's his girlfriend, they're still a gang banger out of the Four Trade Disciple housing project and [an] 18-year-old, poorly educated young mother. Making them married doesn't change any of those things ...
IAN ROWE: Yep.
... and therefore is not a solution to the problem. You have fetishized an institution, which is the product not the cause.
IAN ROWE: Yep. Glenn, so my response to that is how about we try to reach those same people, the 18-year-old, well before they develop the habits of mind that have put them in the situation that you're describing, because what you're describing is almost irreversible. That's why I run schools.
My definition of “agency” is, “the source of your free will guided by moral discernment.” The force of your free will guided by moral discernment. The idea being that every young person has the ability to make decisions for themselves. The question is, how are you gonna wield, how are you gonna exercise your free will? So think of agency like a vector or velocity. Velocity is not just speed, it's speed and direction. So how do young people make the kinds of decisions starting at 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 to put them in a position to self-regulate, what you call discipline?
I've just launched Vertex Partnership Academies. The core virtues of our school are courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom. For temperance, self-regulation, you just said delayed gratification, all of those things. So of course, how do we build that kind of environment as a deliberate intent of part of a school system and a part of a support structure for young people? And in my view, that comes from FREE: family, religion, education, entrepreneurship.
So just taking family, I'm a big proponent of the success sequence, which as many of your viewers probably know, is data that says if a young person just finishes their high school degree, then they get a full-time job of any kind, just so they learn the dignity and discipline of work, and if they have children, marriage first, 97% of young people who follow that series of decisions avoid poverty, and the vast majority enter the middle class. It's not a guarantee. As I've said, there are always exceptions on all sides, but what if we started ...
Excuse me, Ian.
IAN ROWE: ... teaching that 18-year-old those kinds of things well before they're gang banging? Kids weren't born in the gang, right?
I'm sorry, and I don't mean to be obstreperous here, but you're not addressing my point. Yes, if you have kids who do the things that you were talking about doing, they're not gonna be poor. It doesn't follow from that that if I take kids who are otherwise ... I mean, I'm making a resourceful kid. I'm making a resilient kid. I'm making a self-disciplined kid. I'm making an effective person. That person does a lot of things. They marry, they have their children after marriage, and they find jobs and they stay outta trouble with the law. Those are the consequences of having made them an effective person. They're not the causes of them being an effective person. That's the point I'm making you.
You talk about the success sequence as if there were a formula. You can succeed in life if you do the following things. And what I'm saying is, I think there may be a fallacy there, just as a matter of logic. You will succeed in life when you're an effective person. And when you're an effective person, these are the things that you will be doing. You'll be succeeding in life in your job, you'll be succeeding in life in terms of being a good citizen, you'll be succeeding in life in terms of being a good parent. And all of that came from the fact that you had a very good moral and cognitive education at a very fine school.
Fine. I'm for building such schools. I applaud you a hundred percent for doing so. You will be creating effective people about whom a number of things will be true, but you will not have demonstrated a causal connection between those things and the successful outcome.
IAN ROWE: Right. Perhaps maybe unlike other proponents, I actually don't see causality in the way that causality is usually, I think, referred to. Meaning that someone can do “all the right things” and still not be successful. It's like life is probability, right? So we have a class called “Pathways to Power.” In that class, we're gonna say, regardless of your conditions that you're currently living in, here are the series of decisions you are gonna face in your life. You're gonna be making decisions about relationships. You're gonna be making decisions about education, about work, about the timing of family formation. Here's some series of decisions where the data shows the resultant life conditions is X: You'll avoid poverty. Or the resultant life conditions are Y: You'll be more likely to be in poverty, or other outcomes.
And ultimately we say to each young person, it's your choice. There is no guarantee, regardless of the situation that you are born into. But all we can give young people is the best information to make decisions for their own and a sense of agency, that their decisions matter. So if they take all this information, still make the kinds of decisions that you're talking about that put them on the wrong track, that is going to happen. That's the price of freedom.
I mean, unfortunately we are going to have people of all races who make “good decisions” and we're gonna have people of all races who make “bad decisions.” That's a price of a free society. And so I think sometimes people, we want equity or we want the same outcomes. We want everyone to be great. Everyone won't be great. And I think the best we can do is provide a moral structure, the collective wisdom of what we know to be true about what a life of flourishing usually means. In my observation, that's usually strong family, strong faith commitment, strong access to education, and work and entrepreneurship. That's what my observation has been. And I feel an obligation to teach that to young people, and hopefully they follow suit. But there's no guarantee. I don't know if that addresses your question.
No, you're a teacher and you're defending a pedagogical posture that you've adopted that you think will lead to people being more effective in their lives. And I'm for that. And I'm a social scientist who is a little bit prickly about what I take to be causal statements that the data don't necessarily support. And it's a technical point that probably shouldn't detain us very much. (I'm sorry, John. I know you're getting ready to say something.)
You should marry because it's the right thing to do. You should order your life in accordance with deep commitments of faith because it's a better path in life. You should pursue education because it allows you to realize your full human potential. And you should not sit on your ass. You should get out and be busy working, building, creating. These are virtues. They are not formulas. They're not instruments to succeed in life. They are better ways of living. To the extent that we sell them based on a formula for success, to some degree we concede a really important ethical point, which is right living is its own reward.
IAN ROWE: Wow.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Ian ... oh, go ahead, go ahead.
IAN ROWE: No, I was basking in Glenn's wisdom right there.