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.