100+ College Presidents Back Initiative to Lower U.S. Drinking Age to 18

More than 100 college presidents have signed on to an initiative that seeks to lower the drinking age in the U.S. to 18 years of age. Dubbed the Amethyst Initiative, the project seeks to open a civic discourse on the appropriateness of a legal drinking age of 21 in an era of binge drinking on college campuses.

Here is the initiative's brief statement in its entirety:

It’s time to rethink the drinking age

In 1984 Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which imposed a penalty of 10% of a state's federal highway appropriation on any state setting its drinking age lower than 21.

Twenty-four years later, our experience as college and university presidents convinces us that…

Twenty-one is not working

A culture of dangerous, clandestine “binge-drinking”—often conducted off-campus—has developed.

Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.

Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer.

By choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law.

How many times must we relearn the lessons of prohibition?

We call upon our elected officials:

To support an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21 year-old drinking age.

To consider whether the 10% highway fund “incentive” encourages or inhibits that debate.

To invite new ideas about the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol.

We pledge ourselves and our institutions to playing a vigorous, constructive role as these critical discussions unfold.

It's a stunning statement coming from colleges and universities, where students currently may face institutional judicial action for underage drinking on campus.

At the same time, a drinking age of 21 does, as these college presidents point out, force underage drinking underground, and encourages students to drink too much when they do find an opportunity to drink before age 21. So I completely understand the presidents' and chancellors' concerns.

That said, I have open in another browser window the stats on drunken driving and the history of the legal drinking age, courtesy of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the Support 21 Coalition. MADD issued a press release saying that college and university presidents are shirking their responsibility to protect students from the dangers of underage drinking.

Both sides are very convincing, and I have to admit I have limited experience with university student affairs (the "student life," versus the academic, side of the university--a false dichotomy in some ways, but it's the way many colleges and universities are set up to serve students). I haven't yet formed an opinion. That said, the arguments made by Choose Responsibility, the organization behind the Amethyst Initiative, are frequently compelling. The organization also gets my support because it's not just calling for an open bar for anyone over age 18, but rather advocating for such things as increasing taxes on and the cost of alcohol that appeals to young people and a consideration of the special risks faced by young women at parties where underage drinking takes place.

I've written before about how I'm a big proponent of civic discourse. I don't see how opening a discussion on an issue that has become controversial is in itself going to do much harm. But some people seem uncomfortable that the drinking age is even being opened for reexamination. Others are convinced that 21 isn't a magic age where people become responsible--that we need to reexamine our culture's entire approach to alcohol consumption and the way we raise our children to think about alcohol.

Some posts and comments from around the blogosphere:

The blogger at Quo Ero Spero also believes in the importance of civic discourse around this issue. The post illustrates our culture's too-frequent confusion of common sense and legality:

I have always felt that laws that are widely ignored are corrosive to society. The universally ignored speed limit laws, and the contrary, quixotic ways in which they are sporadically enforced, with revenue being a higher goal than safety, are a perfect case in point. Drinking laws in this country are another. Even though the Federal government does not directly set states’ drinking ages, they have used the ability to withhold funds to ensure the 21-year old drinking age across the country. (See the Wikipedia summary of the 1984 law here.) Nearly everyone admires the idea behind legislation designed to protect people, but our society has become far too confused about learning what behaviors can and cannot be regulated by law. Years ago, after a New York Thruway car failure in a New Baltimore, NY rest area, a friend and I questioned the AAA flatbed driver’s plan to have us sit in the car while it was strapped to the bed of his truck. Our question: Is this safe? His reply: It’s legal. That says volumes about the backwards way this country has come to view the role of law in daily life.

Below an article at Injury Board on the Amethyst Initiative, Sonia Kermaz left this insightful comment:

Binge drinking has very little to do with age limits and everything to do with the middle class culture of over-consumption. American parents start with all-you-can-eat pizza parties for toddlers and eventually over-indulge them with cars, credit cards and a campus condo. Binge drinking is nothing more than the adolescent version of adult consumption and spending spending behavior.

Jennifer Bandy at Dartblog concurs with the idea that our culture needs to be more responsible (and perhaps less uptight) when it comes to teaching young people about alcohol:

In Europe, children grow up in a culture that is accepting of alcohol. Wine is served with meals and young people are welcome to participate. Alcohol thus loses its mystique and there is little incentive for young people to act irresponsibly with alcohol. By contrast, the United States, with its puritanical roots, keeps alcohol restricted. This causes curious young people to take chances and break the law to access it. Do I think that this culture can be changed? Not really. Americans are pretty set in their ways, and there is a strong religious component at play here.

As always, Historiann provides some thoughtful context for the phenomenon under consideration:

Drinking moved off campuses in the late 1980s because it was only legal for a minority of college students. Kids wanted to drink, local realtors were happy to rent to them or sell houses to their parents so that they could drink without a nosy RA busting up all the fun, and universities found that they could increase enrollment dramatically without going to the trouble of building new dorms to house thousands of new students. Everyone wins, right? Well, everyone except anyone who lives in college towns, where instead of mowing lawns and playing bridge, homeowners and adult renters spend their weekends on broken-bottle and barf patrol in their lawns and gardens. (Whoever wrote that book that recommended that parents defray the costs of their children’s college education by buying a house for the children to live in in college should be consigned to one of the lower rings of hell for all of the damage he did to neighborhoods surrounding universities.) Historiann spent four years in a quaint Ohio college town whose stock of historic domestic architecture was destroyed by a generation of party animals, which made the “historic mile square” of the town all but uninhabitable by anyone over the age of 23.

Be sure to check out the comments on Historiann's post--there's an interesting conversation going on there about the context and character of an institution. Under discussion is whether the policy of my alma mater to refuse to act in loco parentis and pretty much look the other way on underage drinking is a better approach than a complete ban on underage drinking on campus.

Anna and Ellie at Magna Sententia write that many other rights and responsibilities are conferred at age 18, so why not the right to drink alcohol as well?

So then, what are we to make of this conundrum? First, it seems important to factor in that it’s hypocritical to tell 18-year-olds that they are mature enough to vote, have sex, get married, smoke, sign contracts, get the death penalty for their actions, and give their lives for our country, but then treat them as though they’re too immature to be responsible with alcohol.

In a long and thoughtful post, educational sociologist Donna Keuck Becker reflects on her own intellectual life and its intersection with wine:

Would my experiences as a student and a scholar of the social sciences have been poorer without the education in wine? Would last Saturday afternoon have been as sublime without the grand cru created by Collette Faller and her daughters at Domaine Weinbach? Inevitably, my replies would be subjective and anecdotal. I fear that in the discussion cum battle now engaged over the drinking age in this country, there will be scant space for personal musings. I fear there will be no room to talk about appropriate occasions for moderate consumption in liberal education.

Robin Camille puts it bluntly: The Amethyst Initiative is bogus.

Over at Kid You Not, Mike Foley blames college culture and says greater access to alcohol would be problematic for college students:

I went to Northeastern University in Boston, beginning in 1981, when the drinking age had just been increased to 19. The drinking age would increase yearly. It was a constant struggle for my friends and I to buy beer freshmen year and every year after that. The kid on your dorm floor with a good fake ID was king. If we could have simply walked to the packy and bought a six of Haffenreffer, we’d all be alcoholics today.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toy Box.

Image credit: www.asiaobserver.com

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