John and Mary are 19. This summer they will marry and work part time to pay college tuition. They vote, drive and sign contracts. John, in the National Guard, may go to Afghanistan. But he and Mary cannot share beers with college pals. Mary’s brother Rick has a scholarship. On weekends, his buddies hit fraternity parties, prowl bars with fake ID’s or, before a dry campus event, drink to excess at a private party. His honors thesis mentor will take him to dinner, but no glass of wine. Something is wrong.
Alcohol is a creature. As St. Ignatius Loyola says in the Spiritual Exercises, we should use creatures insofar as they help attain one’s end. In moderation a drink can be a help to fellowship. In the film “Of Gods and Men,” the monks in Algeria who are about to be martyred pass the wine at table. But used irresponsibly, alcohol ruins lives.
In 1984, influenced by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which imposed a penalty of 10 percent of a state’s federal highway appropriation on any state that set the minimum drinking age lower than 21. The states complied, and drunk driving deaths of young people significantly declined. But this decline may also be attributable to stricter drunk-driving laws, seat belt laws and information campaigns against drinking and driving. Prior to 1984 a number of states agreed that since at 18 the young become legally adults, they should be free to drink alcoholic beverages. For those 18 to 21, however, the Minimum Drinking Age Act—aimed at a relatively small percentage of their generation, the drunk drivers—restricted this freedom for all.
Other effects followed the legislation. In reaction to the law or other changes in the culture, drinking began earlier, in suburban high schools, at 14. Drinking by the young went underground, on the youth culture’s private turf, in fraternity houses and off-campus apartments. Vomiting, fights and cutting class on Mondays increased.
Posters in colleges counseled “moderate” drinking; shuttle buses toured bar districts to scoop up tipsy students; drunk students who called for help were given amnesty. Unlike their predecessors, students were binge drinking (five beers at a time, repeated over several days) deliberately to get drunk. Statistics on alcohol-related student deaths vary. Studies conducted between 2000 and 2005 counted the average annual “alcohol-related” deaths among 12 milliion students as between 36 and 1,400. Whatever the true death rate, the ban on alcohol made it a forbidden fruit, a challenge to autonomy. By 1999 a growing number of university professors and administrators decided the law was not working.
In a laudable attempt to reduce drunk driving deaths among the young, have lawmakers created other problems? Do young people drink irresponsibly at least in part because the strict prohibition has also blocked an opportunity to learn from the prudent example of adults the proper role of alcohol? Since so many of the young drink already, are there not ways to encourage responsible drinking without a forced wait until the somewhat arbitrary date of their 21st birthday?
Do drinking laws separate freshmen from seniors who could be positive role models? Do they inhibit teachers’ informal relationships with students? Meanwhile, other research has shown that students in living-learning communities—residence halls organized around academic interests, with quality peer and faculty interaction—drink as often as their peers, but consume significantly less.
In 2008 a group of college presidents led by John McCardell, emeritus president of Middlebury College, formed the Amethyst Initiative (Greek for “not intoxicated”), a statement that the age-21 law is “not working” and that its unintended consequences are increasing the risks for young people. It does not advocate a specific drinking age but calls for creative rethinking of the 24-year-old prohibition. One hundred thirty-six presidents, including 13 from Catholic colleges, of which three are Jesuit, signed.
The dialogue has raged for over a decade in The Chronicle for Higher Education, student newspapers and on “60 Minutes.” Alternative proposals include: plan more living-learning communities; issue a provisional drinking license, after formal instruction and an exam, that allows the holder to drink at limited times and places; lower the minimum age to 19 rather than 18; break the fraternity system, the source of much abuse; raise the minimum driving age to 17; and serve only 3.2 percent beer in college pubs. State legislatures might allow select colleges to experiment with on-campus supervised drinking.
For those who listen to the college-age voices, one message is clear. They want to be treated as adults. The challenge is to find legal and cultural solutions that respect student maturity and welfare as well as the aims of higher education.