One hundred college professors pushed a very hot button last week when they announced they signed a letter stating that they were pushing to lower the national drinking age from 21 to 18. The professors hail from mostly distinguished colleges — including Dartmouth and Duke — and are part of Amethyst Initiative — an offshoot of the nonprofit organization Choose Responsibly, which was started by former Middlebury College President John McCardell.
After the announcement, the media was flooded with editorials, letters to the editor, responses from other organizations, and, of course, rebuttals to the proposal. The drinking age has suddenly become the hottest issue in the press besides the election. There are valid points to be made for both sides of the argument.
In 1984, when the drinking age was raised in the United States, Congress enacted the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. This law basically held states hostage by saying 10% of their federal highway funds would be taken away if they did not enforce a legal drinking age of 21. There has been controversy ever since. The most basic argument against the raised drinking age — and for lowering it –is the most opined: If we can marry, drive, and go to war at 18, why can’t we legally drink?
Our government trusts an 18-year-old to defend our country against its enemies, but does not trust us to consume alcohol at the same age? Another argument for lowering the age is the one the college presidents are using as the backbone of their initiative: a raised drinking age causes binge drinking. As McCardell wrote in a 2004 New York Times editorial:
The 21-year-old drinking age is bad social policy and terrible law. It is astonishing that college students have thus far acquiesced in so egregious an abridgment of the age of majority. Unfortunately, this acquiescence has taken the form of binge drinking. … Our latter-day prohibitionists have driven drinking behind closed doors and underground. This is the hard lesson of prohibition that each generation must relearn. No college president will say that drinking has become less of a problem in the years since the age was raised. Would we expect a student who has been denied access to oil paint to graduate with an ability to paint a portrait in oil? Colleges should be given the chance to educate students, who in all other respects are adults, in the appropriate use of alcohol, within campus boundaries and out in the open.
Perhaps he has a point. When I was in college and the drinking age was 18, there was a pub on campus where students would gather and drink and listen to live music. When I went back to college later on and the drinking age was 21, drinking had become a surreptitious thing; students were hoarding alcohol and drinking as much as they could in as short period of time as possible in order to get drunk before getting caught. That’s not to say students weren’t binge drinking before the age change; just that they are doing it more often.
Maybe that’s not as much the fault of the drinking age laws as it is our views on alcohol in this country. Take a look at this chart showing the alcohol policies of other countries. Very few countries have similar age constraints. Americans tend to take a prohibitionist view on drinking. We preach alcohol abstinence, lecture about the evils of liquor, and let groups like MADD and D.A.R.E. indoctrinate our children into thinking that any alcohol at all is bad.