The Ratatouille Trap

The Ratatouille Trap March 4, 2014

 Ratatouille: a beautifully made movie based on a jaw-dropping premise: rats in the kitchen. It works, but do not ask me how. Visuals of rats running about the kitchen as workers with one as chef should make me gag, but they do not.

Even better, the film has a fascinating moral: not everyone can be a great chef, but great chefs can be found anywhere. This slogan is such an improvement over “follow your heart” or “all dreams are valid” and other Hollywood self-help rubbish that it is tempting to give it a pass. But evidently, God made me to be the Mr Grumpy Pants about such slogans and so I must issue a caution. View it as a “keep out the poison ivy” instead of “keep off the grass” from the old codger in your philosophic neighborhood.

When I warned that all dreams are not “valid”, a brilliant riposte came from a former student tied to Ratatouille.*

But not every rat will be — can be — a great chef. The point isn’t that any individual can do whatever he or she wants (many cannot). The point is that some people are blessed with aptitude and drive and gumption that belies their background, and enables them to achieve far above and beyond our collective expectations.

Embracing this idea means being open to the idea that success can come from unexpected places. It means not shutting the people out of opportunities based on where they are from. We can of course discourage people for a lack of aptitude or self-application, and many who dream will fail. But we should be hopeful and open to surprises, willing to embrace talent and hard work without prejudice or snobbery.

Not everybody from Bethlehem can be Jesus, and yet Jesus can come from even a place like Bethlehem.

This is the kind of writing that makes me want to agree and there certainly is truth in it: if you are Jesus then you can come from Nazareth, the place nobody expects Messiah to call home. People are amazing, created in God’s image, and often achieve more than any teacher can expect. Let’s all agree that we should never assume failure on the part of any person based on their neighborhood. Prejudice? Snobbery? We should unite in purging them from our hearts and minds.

If rats could talk and be chefs, and were willing to give up their rat habits that spread disease, we should let them be chefs. Friends should help pull down barriers to the just aspirations, but simultaneously their rat family is not wrong to tell them to count the cost. Not everyone has the temper of a martyr, not everyone is called to be the first rat hired by a major kitchen. If a rat daydreams about chefdom, then his family is right to discourage the dream if he does not really count the cost.

Ratatouille handles this issue well, I think. The rat is forced to count the cost.

And yet I think there is a serious danger here, a Ratatouille trap. It is so much easier for nice people, and I am ignoring the bigots, to encourage hapless dreamers that we forget to check for what this post assumes: aptitude, drive, and gumption. I once met a student who hated reading, memorizing, or long hours who had as his ambition going to Harvard Law School. When I pointed out what the student would have to do to get to Harvard Law School, he accused me of “stealing his dream.” I was happy to map out an actual plan to get him there, but he wanted to dream about getting there instead. He wanted the lifestyle of a retired, super-successful lawyer, but was not willing to do the work or run the risk of doing family law in a local strip mall.

If you cannot pass biochemistry, you are not going to be a medical doctor. If you have bad work habits, you are not going to be a medical doctor. If you lack gumption, you are not going to be a medical doctor. You might not make it if you have all those traits! Sadly, if you live in a community that denigrates all those traits, then while you might make it your odds have been seriously reduced. 

A feature of the Ratatouille Trap is when we allow our minds to segue through all the hard work as a music montage.

We cannot rest comfortable with the few successes from creaking broken government schools that are not given enough resources, in neighborhoods with disintegrating families, polluted by toxic pop culture and consumerism. Much of Appalachia, my home region, is in the grip of those vices. It is good to remind any student that they might make it, it is bad if we use that hope to ignore the cultural or social evils that make success so improbable.

But this is not the only feature of the Ratatouille Trap. If we are too nice, we also do not point out the odds of the dream or help form a “backup plan” for the dreamer.  We think students understand the odds of playing in the NBA if they mouth the words, but most children do not understand probability. It is hard to become a nurse from some neighborhoods, but nearly impossible to achieve certain dreams. In this way, aspiring to be a chef is not like aspiring to be a great actor.

If you fail to be a great chef, you probably will be able to support yourself as a good chef, but even most great actors end up waiting tables if they are not careful.

Some dreams are so improbable for everyone, that we should discourage them for everyone. If a student from a rich family of the “right” background came and said to me: “I aspire to be an Oscar winning actor” my response would be: “Great, this is so unlikely to happen, and there is no certain path to achieve it, that you should make sure that your twenties also are spent developing other skills.” If it is never wise to put all your eggs in one basket, then it is unwise to throw your eggs in the air hoping a basket will appear and they will not break. This might happen, it is more likely than that any given student will become an astronaut, but a teacher should highly discourage it.

Nobody should head for the NFL in junior high unless they are simultaneously heading for something else. It would be better for the one in thousands to miss out on the NFL or the Oscar (while still having a happy life), than for the millions to fail and have wasted their twenties.

This is particular true for jobs like athletes and actors that are the frosting on the cultural cake. We need scientists, missionaries, and social workers to develop with an almost monastic rigor. Fortunately while all scientific, religious, or social jobs will be opened to everyone, and not everyone can be great, failing to be great will not doom the person to failure. Frankly, the NFL is good, but if the quality of play declined, because nobody ends up pursuing it with the monomaniacal enthusiasm now necessary the nation will improve. Hollywood will have no trouble finding the actors it needs if “acting” disappeared from all life plans. 

For people from neighborhoods like the one of my early childhood, this is even more important. We have no trust fund to buttress our failure. We often have fewer family members to help us do what a Mitt Romney can do and reboot our careers. We must use our twenties to avoid poverty. We can also use them to shoot for something more: both can be done in many cases. Major in English, but spend an extra year getting an accounting degree. Five years of college will not impede the dream of being a great novelist, but at least (T.S. Eliot) a person can work a paying job while trying.

If the cost must be counted, and it must, not everyone can afford the bill. I got into a school I still wish I could have attended, but I did not because the debt accrued would have (in all probability) destroyed my future. I might be doing better now with that “better” degree, but a Reynolds could not afford that degree and my babies could not afford their Daddy to take the risk. I passed on it.

At one time, such decisions were celebrated by Capra and Disney. I was not a hero of course.  A hero would have found a way to do both, but sometimes having decided to be a Daddy, and to do that as well as I could, other dreams have to die. Every parent should recall: being a great parent might mean never holding an Oscar, being a great chef, or writing as many books as I might have done.

You don’t always have to choose: the improbable is so improbable that it can happen in almost any life. It is so unlikely you will be a movie star, that you might as well work a camera in the movie industry and hope (while earning a living wage) as sacrifice all to the dream. If my dream is to win the lottery, someone should only be content with my dream if (as is almost certain) my playing the lottery does not impede actually living the life I am overwhelmingly likely to live. 

Finally, we should never forget though Ratatouille optimists (like I am!) might that some dreams are bad. There is no right to vice and if the goal is to grow up to be a bootleggers wife, then all of education should do whatever it can to disabuse that West Virginian for her dream. It is a dream unworthy of a soul created in God’s image.

It is sadly true that our self-help talk, our “you can make it” illusions, seem necessary, because we have created a culture so toxic for whole classes of people. We denigrate math, hard work in school, and then hope that aspirational speeches will help. I am glad that some get their Oscar dreams, and I hope anyone who would benefit from winning such a prize wins it, but I will never encourage an American to organize life around that dream. It is inadequate from a free person created in God’s image, it is mostly a snare and a delusion. The Oscar will come to someone, if come it must, but Americans need not encourage the desire.

I do not feel grumpy when I see a person clutching her Oscar statue and breaking down racial barriers: I feel joy. I do worry, however, that the message will be: this goal was worth it, achievable with merely with enough sacrifice, and a little bit of luck. That is a lie and too many believe it and end up trapped like rats running on the wheels of the meaningless jobs that are left when they fail. 

*In fact, the danger of having brilliant students (looking at you HBU Honors College) or former students (Torrey chums) is that I am never able to rest satisfied with my dungeon. Then again, given my deeper commitment to Socratic discourse this may be a bug, not a feature.



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