In her article “Binge drinking students happier than others, study finds”, Jennifer LaRue Huget asserts that which we have known all along: students on American college campuses care about drinking. They engage with it not as coping mechanisms, however, but as an expression of their social status or a desire to get closer to those of a particular standing. In other words, drinking helps students connect with others and build communities. And it is these social benefits that drive alcohol consumption and necessitate a different approach to managing the consequences of heavy and underage drinking. Of course, it is commonly held that binge drinking is bad and it is generally agreed upon that it should be punished more stringently. However, since this strategy has not been very effective in the past, what if instead of enforcing the laws against underage drinking and punishing those who engage in it, we focused on the reasons behind the drinking culture and offered active preventive education?
As LaRue Huget asserts and Kenneth A. Bruffee agrees, in his “Binge drinking as a substitute for ‘Community of Learning’” article, being a young adult on a college campus can be very difficult. Young adults are expected to be responsible, smart, and obedient; at the same time, they are not trusted with or allowed to make their own decisions when it comes to consuming alcohol. Furthermore, young adults in the United States are allowed to get married, raise kids, smoke cigarettes, go to war, drive a car but they are prohibited to have a drink until they are 21. This contrast of entrusting young people with such high responsibilities while mistrusting them with something so simple as having a drink is contradictory, and wholly ineffective. It also creates a lot of unnecessary stress on the 18 to 21-year-olds who focus their energies on sneaking around in order to drink, instead of spending time understanding the consequences of too much drinking (and finding other ways to build friendships). With that said, what if we, as Bruffee argues, moved away from such a focus on drinking and instead created learning communities that intertwine academic and social aspects of a college experience, and focus on teaching skills and offering opportunities for them to build relationships instead of harping on how bad (underage) drinking is? I believe that if students had more effective ways to build relationships, alcohol consumption would be a side effect instead of the focus.
Additionally, we may consider the lessons from other developed countries, which have by and large de-stigmatized drinking, and have thus been quite effective in lowering the levels of binge drinking and increasing the safety of drinking environments. We may take these lessons and apply them to the United States by actively de-stigmatizing drinking and by re-focusing the attention on the reason why people here drink in the first place: relationships. As a European, where drinking age is between 16 and 18 years of age, I’ve had the firsthand experience of witnessing the drinking habits of college students there. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, young Europeans do not drink any more than Americans do. It is exactly because they do not have to hide when they have a drink or two, but could do so freely and in public, and since drinking is not frowned up, Europeans don’t generally focus on drinking as a way to build relationships. It’s the other way around. They build relationships, then they go out drinking.
Also, there’s the issue of basic education on managing parties where alcohol is present. According to Rick C. Jakeman, assistant professor of higher education at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University, “Students are underprepared to create and manage parties in which others can socialize with alcohol in safe environments.” I agree. Instead of focusing on curbing parties altogether, we should, as Jakeman puts it “urge scholar practitioners to rethink, research, and discuss new and integrative approaches to alcohol education.” In other words, party hosts should be educated on how to host good and responsible parties, instead of being punished for having parties at all. Echoing Bruffee’s sentiments about learning communities, Jakeman asserts that the campus community should take active part in this education and offer good examples and guidelines on how to drink responsibly. Maybe we can even “license” certain groups to host parties after they have gone through specific training offered by the university. After all, as we have seen from research, students don’t drink for the sake of drinking, but for social reasons. Our active participation in educating would help alleviate some concerns over irresponsible drinking and the negative consequences that often follow it.
Finally, in speaking with several of my peers at St. Norbert, including those who are underage, it is clear that the majority of students would not abuse alcohol if they were given an opportunity to drink legally. Quite to the contrary. There would be less temptation to engage in irresponsible activities and more willingness to report any inappropriate behavior, without the fear of repercussions. Drinking in an open and protected environment, such as bars or clubs—as opposed to some basement—is significantly safer. However, due to the stigma, the laws, and the lack of preventive education, students expend their energies on finding “down-low” ways to socialize with alcohol often forgetting to consider the responsibilities of such an engagement.
In conclusion, although lowering the drinking age to 18 or even 16, would be the ultimate solution, in my opinion, and would save tremendous amounts of money and harmful behavior, at the very least we can heed the advice of the experts and the experiences of other countries, as well as desires of young people, and focus on building learning communities, de-stigmatizing alcohol, and designing preventive education instead of punishments. I believe that spending our dollars in a way that strengthens our communities, empowers our students to be responsible, and enables healthy relationships building (instead of “prosecuting” and punishing those who drink) would be a much better way to create thriving campuses where alcohol consumption is present, but alcohol abuse is not.