Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Make Mine A Double, Please

The Hartford Courant informs us that there was a big meeting at Zenith over the weekend to discuss measures Connecticut colleges are taking against binge drinking and other forms of substance abuse. If you dig to the bottom of the article, there is a quote from New President who, like the rest of us, is against binge drinking.

What do I hate about binge drinking? On the weekends the students throw up behind trees and bushes and sometimes when I am walking my dog on Monday she.....well, I will stop there. She is a dog, after all. I bet this is what New President hates most too, it's just that it isn't a very Presidential thing to say to the newspapers, so he had to say the other thing.

Here's my historical question about binge drinking: why and when did it become a distinctively different college practice from what used to be known as drinking? I remember a lot of drinking at Oligarch, back in the `seventies. We had these things called "happy hours," which started at around 10 or 10:30 P.M. In other words, you left dinner, went to the library, and then rolled out of the library and went off to a happy hour. I remember the schedule like some people remember the Stations of the Cross: Tuesday, Pierson; Wednesday, Jonathan Edwards; Thursday, Calhoun. And then it was the weekend. There were Red Cups at Mory's -- or Green Cups, or Gold Cups. There were pitchers at Rudy's (and stealing people's pitchers at Rudy's so you could take them back for the deposit and buy another pitcher.) There were the bongs; and the speed; there was the spurious knowledge that it was fine to do cocaine, because it was non-addictive. There was Tang Cup (drinking beer at the speed of light, something women almost never did, except for super cool straight girls); and there was beer pong. There was Bladderball. Oh God, there was Bladderball.

So I hope I have demonstrated that I know A Few Things about college drinking. And I am old enough to remember that if you were having a really great conversation in seminar, you could walk downtown for a beer, and the seminar topic would stretch into other stuff, and you would start to really get to know something about what the other students, or the TA, or on really special occasions a professor, thought. But what I was not aware of was anybody dying from drink, or getting their stomachs pumped, or going to sleep and not waking up. This I don't remember, and frankly, I don't think it was a regular feature of college life until colleges, pressured by the government (and probably lawyers and insurance companies), started to crack down on underage drinking in the early 'nineties.

Don't you love the way the Republicans got government out of our lives?

But because I actually do remember how much we drank (a lot), and that we just got drunk-drunk as opposed to fatal/sick/lousy/brain-damaging drunk, my guess is that there is probably way more drinking going on at Zenith and other schools than I can possibly conceive of. And my guess is also that there are professionals on every campus who are coming up with very creative responses to this worrisome trend: many types of engaging alcohol-free events abound, I am sure. But here's a radical idea for you.

Let's get rid of the experts and go back to drinking with students. Let's stop forcing them to drink in secret as if we adults on campus thought drinking was actually a vice. Let's tell them it's normal to want to drink, talk to them openly about drinking, and then -- if we have the strength -- show them how. This is a plan, no?

We should lobby our state legislators as educators to lower the drinking age to eighteen; if the state won't do it, we can at least stop enforcing the draconian anti-alcohol policies that seem to have accelerated student drinking. Why not? I think what we have done is drive drinking underground, out of sight of all adults, and it means there is no reliable barometer for most students to know when, or for what reason, you should stop drinking. At Oligarch, half the time you had a drink in your hand there was a member of the faculty around, and even though you might get drunk, you wouldn't get so drunk that you would throw up on her shoes. And if it looked like someone was getting that drunk, friends would quietly remove that person.

The Master of my college did not believe any of his charges should be allowed to graduate without learning to mix a proper martini. Did you say, "How civilized?" I thought you did. And if you didn't know it before you were invited to martinis at the Master's house, you learned, under adult supervision, that one martini was enough in polite company. Because that's all he gave you. And it was enough. You didn't have six martinis and look back on it the next day and say, "I wonder if I should have had five instead?"

Here's my proposal: I think we need to take a leaf out of the book of the safe-sex people. Sex education is based on the notion that telling people not to have intercourse until they are ready for mature, committed relationships doesn't work, so instead the dominant practice at places like Zenith is to teach young people how to have sex without hurting themselves and each other by making fetuses they don't want, or by spreading diseases that range from being inconvenient to fatal. Why shouldn't we teach them to drink responsibly too? Show them how to get moderately drunk, and not so drunk that they forget how to care for themselves, or leave their dinner behind a bush. And we can't do that unless we are allowed, or even encouraged, to drink with them.


Anonymous said...

Well, Prof, not to make any assumptions about your age, but I know when my folks were in college, drinking was legal at 18, so it was normal and regulated and not taboo, and there's nothing a Zen kid loves more than breaking taboos.

(incidentally, as a Zenith student, I'm going to adopt Zen the way we've adopted our real first syllable.)

Anonymous said...

I wholly agree. An additional benefit is that if/when people do get too drunk there will less hesitance to call for help for fear of additional repercussions.

Without getting too specific so as not to cause trouble, I'm a recent graduate of Zen and there were several social occasions when professors and students drank together and although technically under-aged people were not allowed access to the open bar everyone turned a blind eye and students and professors got tipsy together, on a couple occasions they even made appearances at the after-parties and everyone had a good, safe time. Unfortunately I doubt our government will adopt this logical, progressive, potentially life-saving policy.

Anonymous said...

Good public policy doesn't flow from common sense if there's a stack of money in between point A and point B.

The drinking age went up in all states in the mid-80s, because it was a condition of a highway bill, and states that clung to 18 were going to be left out. Colleges and Universities were legally liable for drinking done on their property and in their dorms by the under-21s (who are usually the majority of undergraduates.) So, in the late 80s and early 1990s, students started moving out of dorms so that they could continue their party-party lifestyle. (This was just fine with the universities, who were for the most part relieved not to have the legal liability any longer.) The big winners in this game were the realtors and property owners near college campuses, many of whom went about buying up whole blocks of towns and cities so that they could charge high rents for crappy apartments. Some towns (like Oxford, Ohio, where Historiann used to live, and I'm afraid it's happening to Fort Collins, Colorado too) have permitted their older homes and historic architecture to be destroyed by heedless drunken renters, to say nothing of the sense of community that has vanished along with owner-occupied the homes. But, the students are happy because they can drink, the universities are happy because they're off the hook, and the realtors are VERY happy that they've made princely sums off of the whole scheme.

The part of this that mystifies me is that clearly parents are enabling this degenerate, anti-intellectual student lifestyle. (These "kids" could't afford to rent an apartment and keep a car, but that's now apparently "de rigeur" for the student lifestyle). So long as parents have the same shallow view of college and anti-academic values about their own children's education, the realtors and the liquor store owners in college towns will flourish. If you look closely, that "invisible hand" is offering a college student a bottle of vanilla-flavored vodka right now.

LumpenProf said...

"The preponderance of evidence indicates there is an inverse relationship between the MLDA [minimum legal drinking age] and two outcome measures: alcohol consumption and traffic crashes."


Not only has raising the minimun drinking age resulted in completely avoidable deaths and injuries, it has also deprived me of the pleasures of talking philosophy with my students over a beer. One of my favorite experiences during college was getting to talk about ideas with my professors over a pitcher... and usually they even bought!

Ahistoricality said...

Isn't caffeine the new alcohol? Instead of a brain-numbing CNS depressant, we go for STIMULANTS: it has the same effect, making you feel smarter and more talkative. It's psychoactive and addictive, cool (in that herdish sort of way), comes in enough varieties now that people have specific preferences, you can be snobby or populist, there are BARS, etc, etc..

I don't disagree about the drinking age: I was a college student when the age was raised, and my student EMT friends got to pick up the pieces on a regular basis. But as an historian the Tenured Radical should know: we are a Prohibitionist society, given to moral panics and Puritan fear of almost-harmless pleasures. The alcohol laws will relax the same time that drug laws do: Bet on it.

Susan said...

TR, I'm totally with you on this, and I was going to echo Historiann on the public policy side of this. If I'm not mistaken, universities have to provide "alcohol policies" every year. And there are all sorts of federal funds (student financial aid) tied to those. Just like the highway money.

But I too am old enough to have been in college when the drinking age went down to 18. THere were lots of occasions when we drank with faculty. Mind, I don't think it was unheard of for people to get sick drunk (beer pong has a way with people) but it wasn't normal.

Anonymous said...

One of the other issues here--many adults well past college drink to excess as well. I've done it, as a professor, with other professors. I've seen it happen among corporate people. The loss of civilized drinking is bigger than just students.

Anonymous said...

It must be delightful to live in a place where one can stumble home after a semi-drunken philosophical evening with anyone. For those of us who must travel via cars, the risk of general damage to unknown bystanders as a consequence of "teaching our students how to drink" is too high.

And seriously. I am already supposed to teach them a subject, model intellectual inquiry, and be a good model for the work world. What the heck else am I going to be expected to teach?

Anonymous said...

Our family psychiatrist told my son, himself a student at a first rate university, that a lot of the binge drinking is a result of unhappiness and an attempt to escape the institutional quality of many schools. MY son is no dummy-a 1550 on the SAT's with no review course taken - an independent thinker and a massive love of knowledge since he was a small child but these schools are big and lonely and just plain institutions -drinking and drugs are a GOOD ESCAPE.We just can't wait until he graduates.

Horace said...

I am all for lowering the drinking age, and bringing young-adult drinking out of the closet, as it were.

And I, too would relish the occasional opportunity to share a libation with students as a way to model a convivial intellectual community, as well as (perhaps) responsible drinking habits.

But we mustn't forget the other panic that goes along with young-adult drinking, or more specifically intergenerational drinking, which is the spectre of inter-generational sex.

So even if we do somehow miraculously find ourselves with lowered state drinking ages, we'll still find ourselves saddled with actionable institutional regulations on falling into our cups with students, lest we find ourselves falling into our beds with them.

Because extra sex can always be used to raise the puritanical hackles.

Anonymous said...

Oligarch was hit fairly hard by the recent state law criminalizing not only the sale of alcohol to those below 21 but also "knowingly permitting" underage persons to drink. Now the master really has to crack down on parties and the like.

I'm a member of a campus organization that has done as much as anything to normalize drinking for me. We have debates every week and at every debate there's an open bar staffed by a member of the group. Drinking to the point of sloppiness is considered highly improper, and so very few people do. When someone does get overly intoxicated their friends sit them down and take care of them and the bartender starts serving them juice (even if they think they're getting something stronger).

This group can no longer find a room to use for meetings in any of the colleges, and has been reduced to meeting off-campus and in secret. It's a real shame that this puritanical focus on "abstinence" and prohibition makes it so hard to teach moderation.

Steven Horwitz said...

I'm late to this thread, but the comparison to safe sex is precisely the right one. At my place, we've been trying to go this route for awhile. We cannot change our policies, but we can be open and honest with students about strategies they can use to drink without killing themselves (or being on one side or the other of an alcohol-fueled sexual assault). We talk about how to pace yourself to keep the buzz without going over the top, for example.

Has it made a difference? Some perhaps. I think in conjunction with lowering the drinking age and allowing, just as you say, more faculty-student interaction over alcohol, it would.

One of my favorite events of the year here is a beer and wine tasting with graduating seniors the week of commencement. It is so civilized and nicely models that alcohol can be savored not just devoured.