I have been a serious cyclist now for almost as long as I have been an educator, about thirty years. One of my favorite films, which I showed each year I taught high school English, is Breaking Away, a 1979 fim based on the real-life mania for cycling by the main character, Dave Stoller (Dave Blase) and the Little 500 bicycle race held at Indiana University.
Along with the focus on the love of cycling, the engaging and rich characters, and the heart-warming humor, the film is also a dramatization of America’s pursuit of a meritocracy, the plight of the working class, and the promise of education.
“I Want Some American Food, Dammit! I Want French Fries!”
Breaking Away is a story at its core about family and friendship in Bloomington, Indiana, where the limestone quarry industry was disappearing and Indiana University sat before the four main friends of the film like both a promise and a curse.
Dave, Mike (ex-high school quarterback), Cyril, and Moocher are recent high school graduates drifting into adulthood. They still identify with the “cutter” working class community their families depended on, but feel the pressure to move ahead, possibly attending college.
Dave’s father Ray, once a “cutter” but now a used car salesman, finds himself unable to connect with Dave, who has fallen in love with cycling and Italian culture. The dynamic between Ray and Dave highlight the generational tensions faced in twentieth century America—where the working class was disappearing, college was becoming a necessity and not an avenue for the elite, and American culture was blurring with international culture.
With his future in question, Dave resorts to working at his father’s car lot, while his friends also struggle with entering the adult world and leaving the idyllic quarry behind—a quarry that has become a swimming hole for the young adults and holes signifying the loss of a livelihood for the adults, working class Americans abandoned by the American Dream.
Dave confronts several harsh lessons including trying to find time to train on his bicycle while also working (in one scene he rides rollers in the rain just outside the lot offices) and experiencing the shattering of his idealized Italian professional cyclists (who shove a frame pump in his spokes during a hard-to-fathom appearance at a Bloomington bicycle event).
Along with the family tension among Dave and his parents as well as the unraveling of the four young men’s friendships, the film also explores the heated conflict between the locals, the “cutters,” and the university students—the inequity between the working class and the privileged.
The fighting between the “cutters” and the students reaches a fevered pitch, resulting in the “cutters” being allowed to race in the Little 500, against the fraternity members most negatively portrayed in the film.
It is at this concluding scene of the film that I want us to focus.
Equity, Not Equality: The Meritocracy Imperative
Participation in the Little 500, at least the film version, requires two things: Teamwork and every participant riding the exact same Roadmaster bicycle.
In the real-life event, Dave Blase rode away from the field, but in the film, Dave Stoller struggles against a crash and injury and pulls off a last-second victory. These details are far less important, I think, than how this simple and inspiring film tells a story of the possibility of meritocracy within a cautionary tale of the crumbling working class in the U.S.
The film’s meritocracy theme includes the need for teamwork, even within the competition paradigm, but most important of all, the film highlights the need for opportunity and equity.
The university officials step in and create the opportunity for the “cutters,” erasing the privilege advantage of the fraternity-only event. The guidelines of the Little 500 also demand equity—all riders on the same bicycle.
Once opportunity and equity are established, then the possibility of meritocracy exists. While the film confronts equity, many Americans wrongly confuse the need for equity with the dangers of state-imposed equality.
Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” offers a story of equality: “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.”
Side by side, Breaking Away and “Harrison Bergeron” represent the great American failure to seek equity and the need to stop confusing equity with equality (Vonnegut’s satire is a nuanced look at the tyranny of both forced equality and rugged individualism).
As poverty and the working poor expand, as the working class and middle class disappear, and as the privileged pool their capital on the backs of all the rest while creating an ever-widening gap between the have’s and have not’s, Americans are cautioned to consider the realities of equity and opportunity as well as what steps must be taken to achieve the meritocracy because like the fraternity members of the film, the ruling elite do not want equity and opportunity, do not seek a meritocracy—as these would all bring to pass the possibility that Dave Stollers everywhere would be allowed to break away from inequity.
As the film shows, competition sorts; it doesn’t create equity. The American commitment to competition and choice are commitments to sorting, not equity.
In order for life’s necessary sorting to be fair, then, a just society committed to democracy and individual freedom must insure opportunity and equity.
Without equity and opportunity, one of the fraternities wins the Little 500. With equity and opportunity, the “cutters” win and genuine merit is rewarded.
The problem is not that we have sorting, but the conditions within which that sorting occurs.
The film ends with Dave also having an opportunity to enter college, the promise of education in the pursuit of meritocracy.
In the current culture of education reform, a series of policies ignoring equity and opportunity while perpetuating sorting mechanisms and entrenching inequity further, Americans need to consider priorities: Equity and opportunity first, choice and competition to follow.