Grit, Tenacity and Pointlessness
I have figured it out. I know where all this craziness about college is coming from. I know why we all have college and career ready standards, why David Coleman thinks nobody gives a sh*t what you think, why Obama wants every kids to go to community college. They were inspired by the movie Rudy. Indulge me here.
My husband was at a conference last week where the motivational speaker was Daniel Ruettiger, now famously known as “Rudy” from the 1993 movie of the same name. Inspired by the speaker, he watched the movie this weekend and encouraged me to join him. The story centers around a boy from Joliet IL who dreams of going to Notre Dame to play football. The problem is, he is puny, poor and not a very good student. We later learn he has a little dyslexia which certainly hasn’t helped him academically. For no substantiated reason other than his father likes the team, he is determined to play for the Fighting Irish.
He will not be swayed from his dream despite numerous people (his father, his brother, his high school teachers, Father Cavaugh, Notre Dame’s admissions office, etc.) telling him that it is not a realistic goal. Of course in the end, due to his grit, tenacity, and as the coaches call it his heart, his dream of playing football at Notre Dame comes true. His teammates carry him off the field after a play where he sacks the quarterback, the last time any player at Notre Dame is carried off the field. Little guy wins despite all odds. Cue music. The End.
My husband and thousands of other people loved this movie and its message. If you work really hard you can achieve your goal. As far as Daniel Ruettiger’s goal went, to play football at ND, this is true. But I think there are those who took other messages from this film too, like; no one should be denied the chance to go to college just because of their economic, or maybe even academic, status. Community college is a great way to access a high quality education at a prestigious college. Lessons learned from high quality institutions, combined with perseverance, will get you far in life. Everybody who tells you you can’t do something is wrong.
My take away from the movie was a little different. And I will say here that my husband thinks I totally miss the point and “just need to go with it” a little more.
Rudy wanting to go to Notre Dame to play football was like a kid wanting to go to Harvard because he heard they had a great cafeteria and he just couldn’t wait to eat Harvard food. Rudy was never focused on the value of the education he would get at ND. In the movie, every class he took at the junior college was portrayed as just another hurdle to get to his goal, “I have to get an A on this exam or I won’t have the grades the ND admissions office says I need to get in.” He never seems intrigued by what he is learning and we see almost nothing of his academic life once he does get into ND. He is never portrayed as someone who has the mindset of a typical college bound student, someone who is curious and interested in learning new things for the sake of learning. He is all football.
What great achievement did Rudy have that we should all admire? His achievement is that he is allowed to suit up for the last game of his college career and, once the game is in the bag, he is allowed in for one play. He was never a great football player. We see that in the numerous ways he is beaten up during team practices. The gesture to let him play is clearly gratuitous on the coach’s part, in recognition of his tenacity, as well as the chanting “Rudy” from the other players and the crowd. While he does sack the QB, it does nothing to alter the outcome of the game.
His biggest contribution to the team was to set an example of getting back up after being pushed down in practice. It becomes much harder for those who were blessed with size and football skill to whine when the 5’6″ human sled keeps coming back for more punishment. My husband said that was his job, to prepare the other players for the game so they could achieve all the recognition and glory. I asked whether this was significantly different from what he would be doing at the steel mill, punishing work done mostly behind the scenes. The only difference is, at the end of the football game all anyone had was the memory of an entertaining game. At the end of the day at the steel mill thousands of people might have an I beam that would allow them to safely cross a river to get to a job to feed their families. Though he may have contributed more to the other players in real life, that willingness to take more abuse is all we see in the movie.
Daniel’s academic career at ND was middling at best. Turns out his high school teacher who told him he “just wasn’t college material,” may have been kind of right. He went on to have a mediocre career as a salesman for a decade before deciding to try to sell his story to Hollywood. Though he is persistent, he and his partner are rejected by almost all of the studios. It is through pure luck that he runs into a mailman who happens to know where the last movie executive Ruettiger has been trying to see lives. What is interesting is that grit, tenacity and perseverance have very little to do with his success at this point in the story. What draws the mailman to Ruettiger is the fact that he is the only human in Hollywood who recognizes his existence and smiles at him on his rounds. This gesture of genuine human relationship is what gets him an escort to the executive’s house. It was not necessary for Ruettiger to wear this man down as he did all the people at ND. The Tri-Star executive is intrigued by the story of the little guy with a lot of heart and thus the movie gets made.
Ruettiger’s perseverance in making a movie about his perseverance comes off a little like Kim Kardashian being famous for being famous. One of the grounds keepers points out to Rudy, who is depressed because he thinks he will never dress for game, that he is missing the point – that he got an excellent education from a quality institution like ND. We learn nothing in the movie about the value of this education. It did not seem to do much for him in the private sector sales job and certainly didn’t open any doors in Hollywood. The real value of Rudy is more for Notre Dame University who, he claims in his talks, has made over $1 billion from the movie.
I can’t help but wonder if Rudy’s path, which is being laid out for today’s students, is really the best thing we can do for them. Many kids are not ready, academically or financially, for the rigors of a 4 year selective college. But we tell them they can go to 2 years of community college, which is what Common Core Standards will prepare them for. Then we can force the college system to accept those two years of junior college level work, take those students in and allow them to graduate with a degree that makes it look like they had 4 years of rigorous academics at a selective college. They see about as much value in the college degree as Rudy did. It is merely a means to an end, the end being a job. We are now honing them to have perseverance without getting them to focus on what they are persevering in doing.
I don’t want to denigrate Mr. Ruettiger’s life or aspirations. He achieved his goal through hard work and never giving up. Those are admirable traits and most likely made him happy, for a while. He proved the naysayers in his life wrong, which was surely satisfying. Maybe that was the best lesson to take away from the movie. The system was telling him he shouldn’t go to college. He should settle down with his high school girlfriend and be a happy steel mill worker. He didn’t accept what the system was saying.
For that reason I would still recommend the movie to today’s students. If they learn that they don’t have to accept what the system is telling them, that they should grow up to be, as Notre Dame Constitutional Studies Professor Patrick Deneen warned, “workers in a deracinated globalized economic system” and be happy about that, then I think it would be a good movie for them to see.