Forget the SATs. How Many Days Did Your Students Drink Last Week?

September 24, 2011, 11:29 am

The beginning of the semester is always a time for reassessment, isn’t it?  SAT scores, we hear, despite endless amounts of testing mandated by No Child Left Behind, have declined.  Unsurprisingly, Daniel Luzer of the HuffPo thinks this is not a problem; William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan, thinks this is a “wake-up call” about the failure of liberal education policy; and no one, as far as I can tell, has asked a college professor whether it matters. Why we think that test scores should get better and better, and when they don’t, an apocalypse of some kind looms, is such a quintessentially American scenario.   While SAT’s do, to some extent, predict college performance; high school grades predict it better; and success in a demanding and creative school is even higher on the Radical list, my best criteria for student success is: drinking.

I don’t mean takes a drink now and then, or pays a legal fellow student to buy a pint of cheap vodka before the weekend, I mean drinks-drinks.  Drinks almost, or every, day. Drinks more than one — let’s be real:  more than two, probably four or five.  Begins the weekend on Wednesday night. Starts getting truly hammered, passed-out, $hit-faced drunk on Friday.  Goes to the game on Saturday, tailgates beforehand and drinks throughout the game.  Spends spring days hanging out in front of the frat house toasting his adolescent bod and making sure there is always a cold one in hand.  Makes sure her boyfriend always has wine coolers on hand because she doesn’t like the taste of alcohol. Gets up on Sunday with a pile of work to do that s/he doesn’t even know how to begin.

The past couple years has seen prominent critiques of undergraduate education that detail the failures of the professoriat, and the endless waste that students and their parents pay for without good return on their money. We have been intrigued by the neat idea that students could just bag college altogether, be autodidacts and be better prepared for a world we fuddy-duddy academics can’t imagine much less prepare them for.  Few of these critiques even mention the importance of social life to students’ inability to capitalize on the opportunities offered in college.  One that does, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2011), is less interested in the causes of student underachievement than in the faculty’s reluctance to do anything about it by tightening standards and insisting that students meet those standards or fail.

But is drinking a practice that responds to fear of failure?  Prompted by an excellent post over at Historiann, which addresses the false dichotomy between the “real world” and the “college world”, I would like to point out that there are any number of ways in which that dichotomy allows many adults to not see certain kinds of student behaviors as pathological, things that other people are incarcerated, fined and punished for.

Excessive drinking, like sexual assault, is one of those things adults like to both condemn and ignore in college students. Drinking tends only to be scrutinized when it is connected to other, “more serious” events like death, violent mayhem, alcohol poisoning and rape failure to secure informed consent prior to intercourse.  Although there is some tut-tutting about a “binge drinking culture” (hello?  these kids are alcoholics) that is often countered by bromides about how important friendship is to the young and the need to “relieve stress.” (Note: it’s also very stressful to be flunking out of college, and responding to that by drinking more and blaming other people for your problems is also alcoholic behavior.) But when it comes to a college administration actually stopping students from drinking, no one seems to know how to do it.

Here’s the news: about half your students are situational alcoholics, and most of those will probably recover when they realize that holding down a job and being a drunk is a skill few can master.  I remember a young friend telling me about a category at a women’s school they called “LUGs,” which meant “Lesbian Until Graduation.”  We might add to that category “AWACs,” translating to “Alcoholic While At College.” Although only a few of these students will go on to be genuine, professional alcoholics, this period of alcoholism still has a dramatic impact on their ability to learn, remain organized, be healthy and mature as intellectuals and workers.

So without further ado, here are the Twelve Steps that institutions could take to reverse student alcoholism (with thanks to the Friends of Bill):

1. Administrators must admit that they are powerless over the distribution and consumption of alcohol on campus, and that student alcoholism has become unmanageable through conventional rules and regulations. This means dispensing with “substance-free dorms” where uncool people who are unable to defy their parents live, spaces that automatically make other dorms “substance consuming dorms” where cool people live. It means getting rid of penalties universities cannot, and in some cases will not, enforce.  It means dispensing with euphemisms like “binge drinking,” “partying,” “overindulgers”  to replace those ugly words:  alcoholism and alcoholics.  It means explaining to students, when they shriek that they are adults who will be responsible for themselves, that an adult who gets drunk every night and can’t get his or her work done is by definition not responsible.  It means admitting it that ice cream sundae parties, playing Twister, and other d00shie activities are not considered by students who do not attend Christian institutions to be a viable substitute for getting trashed, working on their coolness resume and playing hide the salami.

Try this:  announce publicly that there is an alcoholism problem at your school and follow up by making well-advertised twelve step meetings in the community.  Make one meeting a day available on campus, and invite community members to attend.

2.  Attend to the cynicism, lack of self-confidence, fear of failure and inattention to spiritual and emotional life that has been produced, in part, by the uber-competitive college admissions process and our inability to make college affordable. Students drink for a reason, one of which is that even (especially?) the most successful believe that disaster is right around the corner.  Up to the moment they are admitted to college, it’s true. If they are taking out massive loans to pay for college, it’s still true.

3.  Cultivate an atmosphere in which students are asked to attend to the greater good even if it inconveniences their ideas about leisure and hipness. This would mean not making dormitories into party facilities administered by other students, which currently we do.  Music should be off and students using headphones by 9 p.m.; lights should be out by 12:00; and instead of having a common room where everyone goes to party after a quick swipe at class prep, turn that space into a library where students can work without disturbing their roommates and neighbors.  Parties should be restricted to Friday and Saturday night.

4.  Build moments into each semester where all students, individually and as a group, make “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of themselves.

5.  Ask students to admit the truth of why they don’t get their work done, not supply them with excuses. As part of this, let’s address the ways that colleges and universities don’t want to repress the “fun factor” by doing things that would suppress partying in dorms; and they way they use alcohol, and alcoholic events, to cultivate future alumni/ae.  I find it ironic, for example, that Zenith prohibits faculty from serving wine in a dignified way at any event where a student might be present, and prompted by the budget crisis we are no longer reimbursed for alcohol consumed at professional events.  Okay, fine.  However, the institution cultivates — and subsidizes — an alcoholic practice called “senior cocktails,” where seniors periodically drink themselves into a puddle, often on a school night; and the mega-alcoholic “senior week” that is intended to send students off with a warm, glow-y feeling about their college years.  At other schools, one might remark upon the fierce dedication to tailgating.

6.  Be ready to make a real commitment to ending antisocial drinking that examines the culpability of all players, including parents who did little or nothing about their children’s drinking before they left home. In fact, here’s an idea:  send students back home when it becomes apparent that they are alcoholics, unless they are willing to acknowledge and deal constructively with the problem at school, including regular attendance at twelve step meetings.

7.  Cross our traditional lines of institutional antagonism, put our other differences aside, and admit that drunkenness — whether among students or faculty — is a community problem that requires a community solution.

8.  Insist that damage done to college facilities by students be repaired, paid for, and publicly apologized for by the perpetrators.  If a student organization cannot, or will not, reveal the perpetrators, then that organization must take responsibility as a group. The money spent on college building that are damaged and befouled by drunken students is not is built into every college’s budget.  While some of that money is recovered through fines, students are rarely held accountable for the trashed furniture in their rooms and common rooms, or the beer, urine and vomit stink that has to be steam cleaned out of the carpets and from around the campus after every weekend.  You don’t believe me? Here’s a website where students can post about the “funny” stuff they did while drunk, uploading pictures to document their hijinks and love of beer.

9. When students are being disciplined violent, cruel and thoughtless behavior, don’t lecture them that being drunk is no excuse. Drunkenness should be an aggravating factor to any charge.  When a drunk student vomits in a Campus police car, as they do every weekend, that student should have to pay to have the car professionally cleaned.

10. Ask students to periodically come together to review their own behavior, and how it may have affected their academic performance. This might include asking students to honestly account for how much time they spent on their schoolwork and under what conditions they did it.  The vast majority of students who frantically contact a professor about an extension didn’t work on the paper over the weekend; are short on sleep or ill from having stayed up drinking; and/or are either not working from Thursday afternoon on, or are hung over while they try to work.  But it would also help if high school, college and professional school faculty started a real national conversation about using all the grades available in an F to A scale — not just the four grades between B and A — and set a deadline for voluntary implementation of a new grading standard.  If a student can get through college drunk, earning Bs for failing work, there is no incentive to confront his or her actual failure to do the work.

11. Through structured self-examination, perhaps through meetings with advisors or peer advisors, students should be asked to meditate on why they are in college.  Once a semester they should be asked to state clearly what they want from college, and how their behaviors are actually affecting their academic and social success. It probably isn’t a surprise that students don’t enhance their popularity by drinking, even though they might feel like they have when they are actually drunk.  So what are they sacrificing academic success for?

12. Locate the students who get good to excellent grades, who know how to drink responsibly, and ask them to help you solve the problem. If your institution does not do so already, make a concerted effort to open your admissions process to older and returning students who can reinforce a sense of gravitas about the undergraduate project. Student lives are, and are not, accessible to adults: this terrific piece on bullying in yesterday’s Gray Lady makes the important point that generational gaps can even preclude a shared language for understanding violent and antisocial behavior.  We need students’ help in addressing alcoholism and its consequences, and we need them to explain what they think they are doing. Unfortunately, this is not going to occur through the student governance and Greek Councils, whose major interest is protecting students’ right to drink in exchange for hapless cooperation with administrators and putting toothless “rules” into place that are intended to restrict and inhibit underage and illegal drinking.

Faculty have been kept back on their heels for too long, being forced to defend attacks on us as the dinosaurs in the living room of higher education.  It’s time for us to come out swinging in constructive ways, not to blame students or those who are hired to govern them, but to address the ways in which broad-based campus reforms could create the basis for reasserting and supporting our mission as educators.

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