Formally Defining Adulthood

"Binging" - a new college sport that has gained popularity on many college campuses in recent years. Countless students from our area will begin or return to college to start the fall semester. They will ...

Print Email

"Binging" - a new college sport that has gained popularity on many college campuses in recent years. Countless students from our area will begin or return to college to start the fall semester. They will be attentive to all the traditional rituals of campus life. Some are old and some have recently made their way into the equation.

Freshman orientation will attempt to introduce and prepare new students for college life. Students will finalize class registration and sign up for clubs and sports teams. There will be "rushing" by fraternities and sororities and in a more "nocturnal" college tradition there will be "pre gaming" in their rooms.

For many of you reading this column, that concept is very unfamiliar unless you went to college in the mid nineties or later. "Pre gaming" is now a common practice among many 18, 19 and 20 year old students who cannot legally buy or consume alcohol.

It usually involves sitting in a dorm room or in an off campus apartment and drinking as much hard liquor as possible before heading out on the town. If the truth be told, according to a new book on this issue, a growing number of students away at school have been hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. Such hospitalizations are becoming routine across the country.

Barrett Seaman, in his new book entitled "Binge" says that by Thanksgiving one year while he visited Harvard, the university's health center had admitted nearly seventy students for alcohol poisoning.

In recent times when the media reports that a student has died because of alcohol poisoning, his or her college community reacts by shutting down frat houses and declaring the campus dry. Statistics indicate that close to three hundred students die a year due to alcohol poisoning. Tighter enforcement of the minimum drinking age of twenty-one does not seem to be the solution. Some would argue that it is part of the problem.

Traditionally, twenty-one was considered the age that formally defined adulthood. However, with the social revolution of the late sixties, many things changed.

Some of those changes were radical. The voting age was lowered to eighteen. Privacy laws were enacted that protected college students' academic, health and disciplinary records from outsiders, including their parents. The drinking age, which varied from state to state and was rarely enforced, was lowered to eighteen.

In the 1980's, thanks in large measure to the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Congress effectively manipulated the states into hiking the minimum drinking age to twenty-one. They did this by passing a law that tied compliance to the distribution of federal aid to highway funds, a sum that amounts to substantial money each year.

By 1988 all states were in compliance with this new law and statistically, it has saved lives. It has also forced our schools to work harder at educating our young about the potentially dangerous effects of abusing alcohol and using alcohol and driving. It has also had an unintended consequence that some believe is creating a covert culture around alcohol as the forbidden fruit of young adults.

Drinking has been a part of college life dating back to the first Western Universities in the Middle Ages. Those of us who went to college in the fifties and sixties would admit that drinking was part of our culture. At times, people overindulged, but rarely to the extent of needing hospitalization. Binging is a new phenomenon.

Many college administrators note that campus culture starting changing in the nineties. Beer was always the alcohol of choice. However, in the mid nineties it moved from keg parties to hard liquor parties.

Few college educators (myself included) believe that the twenty-one year minimum drinking age has done anything to control or harness the reckless drinking among our college students and/or those between eighteen and twenty.

In recent years, based on my observations and asking hundreds of college coeds in my classes every year, the problem has become more critical, especially since 9/11.

Since the tragedy of 9/11 and the increase of young men and women volunteering for military service, the contradictions and double standards have become painfully even clearer.

We say that at eighteen you are old enough to enlist or be drafted into the military. At eighteen, in this state, you are old enough to obtain a senior drivers license and get a marriage license without parental consent, but you are not permitted to purchase and/or consume alcohol in public or in your own home.

Lowering the drinking age in the mid eighties clearly raised our nation's consciousness on some very reckless social behavior. It established not only a minimum drinking age, but also a series of other social regulations around the purchase, consumption and possession of alcohol. It is a media event every time one of these new regulations is passed.

The tragedy around this whole issue is that we do little to consistently enforce that which is supposed to be the law. Most eighteen to twenty year olds find the regulations laughable. They make it clear that they have no intention of complying. They do qualify their responses by saying they would never drink and drive. They indicate that they learned that lesson very early on in school.

The inconsistency of enforcement and the clear lack of clarity as to what defines an adult adds tremendous fuel to this fire.

It makes sense to consider clarifying what age you are considered a legal adult. Since most other social responsibilities suggest eighteen, then maybe we should consider revising the minimum drinking age. However, we should also make the commitment to "throw the book" at any person who breaks the law. We should have a zero tolerance for law breaking in this area with no plea-bargaining or excuses for reckless behavior. The other alternative is to make twenty-one the threshold for adulthood, but then we must enforce it.

As a culture, if we want our 18, 19 and 20 year olds to act like adults, then we should treat them accordingly.