Drink re-think

The morning papers carried news today of an invitation to consider lowering the drinking age to 18 from presidents of the nation’s top colleges and universities:

College presidents from about 100 of the nation’s universities, including Duke, Dartmouth and Ohio State, are calling on lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, saying that current laws actually encourage dangerous binge drinking on campus.

The movement, called the Amethyst Initiative, began quietly recruiting presidents more than a year ago to provoke national debate about the drinking age.

“This is a law that is routinely evaded,” said John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont, who started the organization. “It is a law that the people at whom it is directed believe is unjust and unfair and discriminatory.”

All Things Considered had an interview tonight with McCardell, who sounds like a smart and genuinely concerned person.  You can see the Amethyst Inititive’s statement here–and I think it asks a great question:  do age-21 laws serve us well?  Although the quotation above frames this more as an equal rights issue, the real motivation for the Amethyst Initiative seems to be the epidemic of binge drinking.  While I think the raising of the drinking age in the 1980s was part of the problem, lowering the drinking age again is only part of the solution.  The Amethyst Initiative people are correct in noting that the binge drinking is happening off-campus, but the reason drinking moved off campus over the past twenty years also has to do with money–the money earned by unscrupulous realtors, and the money saved by financially strapped universities.

Drinking moved off campuses in the late 1980s because it was only legal for a minority of college students.  Kids wanted to drink, local realtors were happy to rent to them or sell houses to their parents so that they could drink without a nosy RA busting up all the fun, and universities found that they could increase enrollment dramatically without going to the trouble of building new dorms to house thousands of new students.  Everyone wins, right?  Well, everyone except anyone who lives in college towns, where instead of mowing lawns and playing bridge, homeowners and adult renters spend their weekends on broken-bottle and barf patrol in their lawns and gardens.  (Whoever wrote that book that recommended that parents defray the costs of their children’s college education by buying a house for the children to live in in college should be consigned to one of the lower rings of hell for all of the damage he did to neighborhoods surrounding universities.)  Historiann spent four years in a quaint Ohio college town whose stock of historic domestic architecture was destroyed by a generation of party animals, which made the “historic mile square” of the town all but uninhabitable by anyone over the age of 23.  Famille Historiann really liked that little town, but it made itself hard to love or raise a family near the town center because of the lack of law enforcement concerning the age-21 laws, public drunkenness, and the associated mess.

So, I say, sure, let’s talk about lowering the drinking age.  But, let’s also mull over these big questions, too:

  • Are colleges and universities prepared to offer housing to all of their undergraduate students?
  • Are colleges and universities truly ready and willing to serve in loco parentis once again?
  • Are local real estate interests prepared to give up the lucrative college student market?
  • Will parents and communities discuss raising the driving age to 21? 
  • And, will monkeys fly out of my butt and mix me up a Pisco Sour?

0 thoughts on “Drink re-think

  1. I went to a SLAC that deliberately ignored the drinking age. It was in the middle of nowhere, so drinking and driving was a non-issue, and they believed that treating us like adults when it came to alcohol would help reduce binge drinking. In fact, one of my first memories of my college experience was being handed a cupful of keg beer by my RA.

    I proceeded to spend the next 4 years binge drinking. So I question the rationale here. I really don’t think this is a question of age, its about our relationship to alcohol more broadly speaking. Changing the age limit might increase enrollment, but it won’t change the culture.


  2. Did you go to Grinnell? We had a pretty open alcohol and pot policy on campus. We smoked pot in the student union, brought kegs to football and basketball games, had a great pub underneath one of the dining halls, and had these all campus parties where the beer and booze ran freely and people handed out joints. I also spent many semesters drunk and stoned. I did graduate and went on to become a respect member of society but I should have gone to a Methodist college not a Congregational college.


  3. That’s funny. I did go to a Methodist college, in Ohio, in fact, but not the school Historiann lived near, and way before recently. There were clear rules discouraging alcohol use on campus, often enforced but skirtable by the discrete. Off campus Greeks made up their own rules. The key may have been that Ohio had a law allowing stores and bars to sell 18 year olds “3.2” beer, 3.2% alcohol by weight. I assume it was a vestige of the end of Prohibition. You could get pretty well buzzed and sometimes fairly immobilized by it–depending on bladder strength–but it was hard to die from and we couldn’t have cars anyway. It kept us away from the hard stuff until the soft drugs lured us away from both. It was kind of a training wheels approach to outgrowing the need to get totally smashed. I can’t understand the collegians I live near now, who wait until 11:30 at night to even venture out to the bars, and who then fully intend to get incinerated. Even when they later get their names in the campus paper under “police reports” for things like peeing under householders’ bushes on the way back home.

    I also don’t see, however, any stated rationale whatsoever in the Amethyst manifesto for how lowering the age will change anything. The law clearly IS discriminatory, and intending to be such, and people always think laws against what they want to do are unfair and unjust. You can become a college president with that kind of analysis? It sounds more like the old Boomer disinclination to have rules to enforce, or not, as the case may be.


  4. Bingo Bob! I did indeed. Beer flowed freely at all campus parties, and no one ever though about checking an ID!

    I actually have a colleague who remembers a time when drugs were even more prevalent, and pot was considered tame.

    That said, I too did graduate and managed to get a PhD, though, unlike the Grinnell profs, I refuse to drink with my students. Not so much because of principle, but I just find my the company of my friends much more enjoyable!


  5. Lower the age but make the drunken brats accountable in every way when they get arrested for disorderly conduct, get kicked out of school for violating school rules, etc.

    If you’re an adult at 18, then by Jiminy, it’s time to make them start becoming responsible for their actions.


  6. My short response is that yes the drinking age should be lowered — if someone is old enough to get married, drive, vote, and go to war, s/he should be able to purchase and consume alcohol legally.

    The longer version will go up on my blog shortly.


  7. The comments here illustrate my point that binge drinking is a more complicated phenomenon that won’t be combatted by any single-bullet solutions. You Grinnell people were/are party animals! But, my bet is that there were lower rates of student-on-student violence (sexual assault, battery, etc.) because of the contained nature of your college. My guess is that this kind of behavior is also safer at a place like Grinnell because the kids don’t all pile into cars to drive home. (Indyanna went to college before cars I think, in the 1890s?, and drunken buggy driving wasn’t quite so deadly!)

    The_Myth’s and Knitting Clio’s comments make sense: let ’em drink, but don’t let ’em think that they’re not accountable for their actions. That was a huge issue in the town I used to live in: public drunkenness and violence was OK if you were a young, white college kid. Why should it be more OK than in people in their 30s, 40s, or older? (I’ll look forward to your further comments, KC! You’re the college student health expert!)


  8. Pingback: Rethinking the Drinking Age: a historical perspective « Knitting Clio

  9. You are right on about Grinnell Historiann. Any kind of violence or harassment led to immediate expulsion, no second chances. It was the same for any kind of cheating. But since we were 1200 kids on 8 square block campus your peers were a very good check on any asshole behavior.

    Part of me wants to support a lower drinking age-you get to vote, fight and die for our country at 18. But having taught at a Big 10 school I have seen the destruction and damage a bunch of drunken college kids can create.


  10. Bob–thanks for stopping by to comment again. (What years were you at Grinnell? Maybe you knew ej?) You make a great point, one that I think I was edging up to, which is that it’s all well and good for the former president of Middlebury College and other SLAC presidents to urge a reconsideration of the age-21 laws. They are for the most part residential colleges where the intimacy of the environment–and in some cases like Grinnell, the isolation too–means that administrators can keep a closer eye on things, and peer pressure works to preserve more civil relations among students.

    But at your Big 10 school, or Baa Ram U., I’m skeptical that lowering the drinking age will do anything without the more comprehensive reforms outlined above. (Reforms which I don’t think will ever happen, because of the money involved.) I guess I’m mostly with Knitting Clio–prohibition clearly doesn’t work–but I think the anonymity and perhaps anomie of the big university experience has more to do with the pathological drinking than the drinking age, wherever it’s set.

    I went to a women’s college, where I think there was even less drinking than at sectarian protestant colleges. There were a few women really into drinking, but they ended up spending more time at the co-ed college down the road, which hosted keg parties every Thursday night. The drugs of choice for the too-cool-for-you crowd from NYC was nicotine and caffeine, and some artist-types smoked a little pot. I think eating disorders were a bigger problem than alcohol, but then, it was the 1980s and early 90s after all.


  11. Indyanna went to college before the Whiskey Rebellion ravaged Transaltoonia, which has never been the same since. (And the Ohio Country’s “Log College Frontier” was an even wilder place during *those* ’90s) He also guest-taught at the U. of Iowa two centuries later, however, and all of his Grinnell friends used to come rushing down I-80 to I. City claiming there was “nothing to do” back on campus. What’s nothing to do about torching a blunt during a post-colloquium meet-and-greet with the presenter? Shoulda been a reverse-commuter! Strange.

    I’m perfectly persuadable that lowering the age could contribute toward a constructive solution, I just didn’t think the author(s) of the manifesto acknowledged any duty to make an actual case to that end, beyond critiquing the reverse strategy of raising the drinking age. _The Myth-‘s point about accountability is crucial.


  12. Eh, I don’t think lowering the age would have any effect at all — I went to Massive Urban U and I’m now at Mid-Sized Urban U and the “preloading” I see is more about saving money than getting busted for your fake ID —- most of the students preload in the dorms before going out to the frats and sorority parties anyway, where they don’t even deal with IDs, so this phenomenon is just a baseline expectation of what college life is like. It’s being passed down as part of the culture, and changing the law isn’t going to make that suddenly not get passed down as normal.

    One thing I will say: the whole acid-and-shrooms thing is either an east coast or a small rural liberal arts college thing, as I didn’t even know they existed when I was at my undergrad — there it was all about the heroin. And really, you’ve gotta weigh the drinking culture and availability against what’s going on in the drug scene.


  13. Well, I’m jumping into this one late, having been on vacation…the first time I heard that argument about lowering the drinking age it was delivered by a Libertarian friend who happened to live in a college town that sounds amazingly familiar to the one you describe, Historiann.

    One empirical question for those who do this kind of research (or try to) — has lowering the drinking age lowered the drunk fatality/injury rate on the road? If I remember correctly, one of the proponents of increasing the drinking age was MADD. So my comments below are not meant to take away from the problem of binge and other forms of excessive drinking.

    I think that 21 minimum is one of the marks of prolonged adolescence — society of infantilization. When you consider how much marketing is geared toward teen-agers — movies for 13 year old boys, Brittany music — there is an interest in keeping people as young as possible for as long as possible. In other words, the message is, you are not responsible and mature enough to make this decision — it probably ties to social views on political participation (you can vote, but it won’t matter because of low participation rate and easy manipulation by political operatives) — and yes, wink wink, you are mature enough to decide whether to take up arms!!


  14. Well – the Greeks drank like mad at my undergrad, of course, but for most of us it would have been too expensive and we didn’t really have time because of the homework load. You had to stay really sharp and we were heavily into coffee and tea, and vitamin B complex as I remember. This was at a big urban campus where there was a lot to do. In that state they heavily carded everyone in all bars, and were very hip to fake IDs, and there was a law against selling hard liquor within a mile of campus, which we laughed at but which may have been smart / kept things down.

    Then I worked at a SLAC which had keg parties for underage people in the very dorms. I was horrified at the amount of drinking, drugs, and random sex … in which people said they engaged because since you paid up front a high price for the year’s tuition and lodging, they didn’t even have cash on them to go to the movies off campus.

    That was when I realized my father had been right, and what he had been thinking about, when he made certain
    remarks about colleges and universities whose catalogues I had requested. One comment I remember was to think twice about Grinell type schools and locations because in a snowy small town, far from everything, there were whole swaths of people who only studied and drank!

    Anyway I’m liberal on these things so I favor lowering the drinking age but I don’t think it will solve a great many problems. Certainly not at a place like mine where everyone drinks like mad no matter what. And 21 is an inconvenient cutoff age anyway, you always then have half the students underage and half not. Might as well make ’em legal, it improves logistics. The age was 18 when I first moved to Louisiana and believe it or not it *seemed* to improve matters insofar as you didn’t have people obsessed with sneaking around to find ways to drink.

    I do favor having alternative activities available, though. Many students do have other interests and will pursue them over just drinking if there’s a way to do it.


  15. P.S. Of course you have to realize that many of the binge drinkers in my state are not students. And there’s a main drag in the historic center of my town which might as well be Bourbon Street. And some of the drinkers there are students (and other youth). But the bars and clubs let you in at 18, on the theory that they just won’t sell you drinks.


  16. Good points, PZ–especially the part about binge drinking not being just a college phenomenon. I’m starting to think that the abolition movement here is more about letting colleges and universities off the hook for policing student behavior than it is about the negative consequences of said behavior.

    And Rad, I totally agree with your point about the prolonged adolescence argument. If this prolonged adolescence and consequence-free construction of the “college experience” is so great, why don’t they live at home and puke in their own parents’ bushes? I’m tired of the whole college-town-as-Bourbon Street. I know some towns market themselves that way–do we really need to do that for Ames, Iowa and College Park, PA?


  17. Another Grinnellian here (c/o 1997), and I can attest that the college deliberately and explicitly eschewed a policy of acting in loco parentis in favor of student governance. Alcohol flowed freely, and yet I didn’t drink at all during my years there, and my many friends were also not big drinkers–many of them didn’t drink at all, in fact. Even if a college embraces a policy of looking the other way on underage drinking, it doesn’t mean all the students are going to be constantly plastered.

    At the same time, the type of student drawn to a small SLAC in a tiny Iowan town differs considerably from the students who attend the ginormous University of California campus where I work. Campus size and students’ orientation toward such things as academics and social service also play into whether drinking gets out of hand.


  18. Well, here’s my small bit Historiann. As you know, I’m a Canadian and the legal drinking age has been 19 for a long time – not a very accurate description, but I can’t remember how long. I do believe that I was legal to drink by the time I was in university. The extreme poverty I lived through with my fellow classmates provided a very clear limit to our drinking habits. A case of beer or a couple of bottles of “Chianti”, oh god, were all that we could afford and it was the rare occasion when we got that. I honestly don’t think I got drunk once, but I’m not saying it might not have happened if it had been possible. I attended university in a very large metropolitan area and our college drunks merged with others downtown. “Frat row” was and is a disaster, however. Until those big old houses went upscale. I don’t know where those boys hang out now.

    My own kids started their “under-age drinking” by the time they were in Grade Eight. By the time my oldest son was in Grade Eleven, I seriously considered socking him into rehab. For some odd reason, he cleaned up his act by himself. I never solved the mystery of how he and his friends got the cash for the booze. When he got old enough, he told me that kids stole the liquor from their parents’ cabinets for the most part. Glad to say it was never from mine because I didn’t have one.

    When oldest son went to an American university, the binge drinking started all over again with a crew of kids away from home for the first time. And later fizzled out again. But I’ve no doubt that it affected his abilities and choices in an extremely negative way and I know he agrees.

    As a parent who cared and had a pretty good relationship with my kiddo, I can only say, yeah, parents can be part of the problem, but only part. Recently I read something about the amounts of gin consumed in the UK during the early decades of the industrial revolution, enabling people to survive, if only barely, the otherwise intolerable social and familial upheaval. Surely the desire to get blotto, when it occurs in the ways we’re seeing with kids and binge drinking these days, has causes that we just haven’t yet really understood, yet may not be all that mysterious. I’m not sure that trying to “educate” them about the dangers of alcohol is going to solve the problem. Not saying we shouldn’t try though.


  19. The Washington _Post_ on its online editions today reported that “any chance for the academic leaders to begin a public discussion of their theory–that allowing people as young as 18 to drink legally might promote moderation–has been lost in a wave of criticism from health experts, transportation officials, government leaders, and opponents of drunk driving.” So, a robust debate on the point should have begun with a big chorus of “good answer, good answer…” like that legendary game show of old, when the contestants’ kin and friends stood by to applaud any old crazy thing that came out? This is a curious approach to the search for truth, it seem.


  20. “Surely the desire to get blotto, when it occurs in the ways we’re seeing with kids and binge drinking these days, has causes that we just haven’t yet really understood, yet may not be all that mysterious.”

    I’m sure this is true. It’s much harder to be their age now than when I was, I think – it’s much harder to be *anyone* now.

    Also, mind altering drugs in legal versions like Ritalin and Zoloft are pushed on them by authorities from kindergarten on. These drugs are HEAVY from what I have been able to gather, and the rational person will laugh if they’re getting “alcohol education” from the same person as is pushing heavy pharmaceuticals!!!


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