Earlier this week, I happened to catch a segment of Marty Moss-Coane’s Radio Times focusing on the drinking age and the issue of student drinking at universities. The guests were John McCardell, the former Middlebury president who is calling for a renewed debate about the drinking age, and Brandon Busteed, a sociologist who studies college drinking.
It wasn’t a particularly satisfying conversation. Busteed was fairly frustrating to listen to simply because he kept changing the subject every time he didn’t want to respond to McCardell or Moss-Coane’s questions. In a nutshell, his argument was that there is overwhelming consensus that the raised drinking age has lowered fatalities and injuries from drunk driving. McCardell pointed out that there are a few complicated issues with those studies, among them that it’s hard to separate out the impact of the raised drinking age from other simultaneous developments which have also reduced injury and death from drunken driving. But it’s probably reasonable to assert that the raised drinking age has helped in this respect.
That leaves a lot to talk about. For example, it really does seem to me that there’s something odd and unsettling about defining adult personhood in a democratic society such that we believe that people are able to make acceptable, autonomous, rational decisions about whether to enlist in the military, accept employment, have sex, incur legal responsibility for their decisions, serve on a jury and vote, but not to drink.
Here’s another question. If we can reduce deaths from drunken driving by increasing the number of people who are not legally allowed to drink, why not make the legal drinking age 25? 30? 40? Why not reinstate Prohibition?
But mainly what McCardell and Moss-Coane wanted to discuss, and Busteed wanted to tendentiously evade, is the basic fact that many 18-21 year olds, both enrolled in college and not, drink. Not drink heavily or binge drink. The latest Jedi mind trick that residential life staff on many colleges and universities have been employing is to try and make students aware that the majority of college-age drinkers do so in moderation, so that binge drinkers won’t do it out of a desire to conform to an archetypical behavior pattern. Count me a skeptic mostly because I think trying to deal with certain kinds of persistent or recurrent social problems by employing the latest cutting-edge research finding often amounts to a full-employment policy for experts and not that much else. You probably egg some college-age binge drinkers on just by letting them know in any way that you’d rather they didn’t binge drink. If you really want to grapple with the issue, you probably either need an indiscriminate no-tolerance crackdown or with a very subtle, highly granular, substantially individualized counseling program.
But as McCardell pointed out, if you’ve got a law and to some extent the law has almost no force or authority, you may have a problem with the law itself. On the other hand, you could just as easily throw the kind of slippery-slope accusations I mentioned above back at anyone wanting to lower the drinking age: why stop at 18? Do we abolish any law that people start to ignore? Aren’t some laws just attempts to define a norm or expectation? And so on.
For me, the drinking-age debate is a bit of a red herring. 18 or 21, I don’t think it would substantially change the problem from the perspective of college administrations, except perhaps that the lowered drinking age would allow those administrations to formally host (and thus control) a wider range of events where alcohol was served in moderation. The problem for college administrations isn’t exactly alcohol, it is the unsettled, permanently shifting calibration of the authority of residential life staff and faculty over 18-22 year old students.
Residential colleges and universities are really not completely done with in loco parentis. If we were done with it, we wouldn’t be supervising dorm life (do landlords supervise renters beyond acting on property damage, major disruptions and criminal complaints)? If we were done with it, we wouldn’t be trying to support student groups, coordinate events, and run workshops concerned with life outside the classroom. So we always have a question about the limits of our responsibility for and to student behavior, and drinking is only one part of that.
I think McCardell is right that putting colleges and universities in the position of strictly enforcing the drinking laws is bad deal for them in every respect. It exposes them to new forms of liability, it drives drinking into more dangerous modes and contexts, and it creates a hostility and opposition between administrators and students that has a lot of spill-over effects. On the other hand, I don’t see that higher education has any need to protect undergraduates from legal or social consequences following from heavy drinking if those occur outside the context of the college or university. You get yourself into trouble with the cops for urinating on someone’s house or fighting in public, that’s your problem. You destroy your roommate’s property, then that’s not only a criminal issue, it’s an issue for the college or university as landlord.
When college drinking–whether moderate or binge–doesn’t have that kind of impact or consequences, then I can’t see as it is really any of our business institutionally. If we’re going to get into the business of comprehensively addressing what a well-lived life ought to be, there’s a lot more on the table than just “drink in moderation”.