the knee jerk culture

imagesWhen I was in college the drinking age changed from 18 to 21, state by state, literally over a few month period.  I remember hoping that the state of Massachusetts wouldn’t move in that direction too but alas it did.  So instead of going off to college where I could legally drink I was pushed to party in private or at least hold on to my fake ID.

Fast forward, these laws have been in effect for over 30 years.  It began with MADD and then the Federal Government decided that in order to push states in the direction of changing the drinking age was to withhold federal highway funds for their state if they did not change the law to 18.  This was all a knee jerk reaction to drunken driving fatalities.

It is easier to just force legislation quickly instead of a long term education about drunken driving.  Think about how successful the campaign against smoking has been.  Education came and the fatalities have ebbed.  Now we have another fatality hitting our streets, text driving.  There will always be something and it always comes down to education.

This week I heard about a kid that went to sleep and never woke up.  This is not the first time I have heard this.  It is a tragedy that is so incredibly upsetting and tragic that it is hard to even wrap your head around.  A young person just starting out in their life.  Each time it has been a combination of pharmaceutical drugs and alcohol.

I had been thinking about the agreement that UVA made with fraternities this past week.  There must be at least 3 sober fraternity members at each fraternity party to monitor behavior.  Alcohol punches and beer in kegs will be banned.  Guest lists will be enforced.  A monitor will hold the keys to bedrooms to guard against sexual assaults.  Is this educating people or just a knee jerk reaction to the sexual assaults tied to bad boy behavior and excessive drinking?

The binge drinking, the abuse of alcohol and other drugs do not take place in Europe to the degree that they do in the US.  Drinking a glass of wine at dinner is part of their culture.  It isn’t about letting it rip.

In the last few decades the rise of pharmaceutical drugs have taken the college campuses by storm.  They are easy to get and abuse.  The cocktail of pills, alcohol and weed is deadly.  What will be the knee jerk reaction to that?  Are we creating a culture where it is not OK to do anything until you are 21?  Do we really believe that if you prolong drinking until that age that perhaps you will be more mature to have a glass of wine?  I honestly do not get it.  You can vote and be drafted to go to war but you can’t have a glass of wine.  Do legislators realize by doing this that the reaction is if we can’t drink we can at least get high on a pill. Again, it is all about education that should be early just like sex ed.

We are finally making gay marriage legal.  We are slowly regulating weed by state.  On college campuses we are returning to something that I can only compare to prohibition.  I hope UVA realizes that the partying will just start to happen somewhere else.  The social world will leave the fraternities, plain and simple.  Kid who are in college will drink.  Kids in college will smoke weed.  Kids in college will take drugs.  Nobody knows when someone takes a pharmaceutical pill and that will be impossible to monitor.

It all comes down to education.  UVA is one of the best universities in the world.  It might be in a primarily conservative state but this latest policy is a total knee jerk reaction to recreational abuse.  At what point will a Dean of a University of  Senator or a Governor start thinking about the long term.  How do we teach young adults to engage in recreational activities responsibly vs. holding the keys to the castle.  Guess what…there is always a castle without a key.

Comments (Archived):

  1. Caroline McCarthy

    I hear you on knee-jerk reactions, and do think that raising the drinking age caused much more trouble than it was worth especially when it comes to American college party culture. I grew up in a very anti-alcohol household and wish I’d had the chance to go to a few parties in high school, or have a glass of wine at dinner on occasion, so that I wasn’t just thrown into the mix when I got to college. You’re right — college students are going to drink and party no matter what.That said, I think these are rules that are pretty standard across many campuses and were likely instituted after some decent research or looking at what’s working at other schools — in fact, it surprised me that they weren’t already in place at UVA.I was in a leadership role at one of Princeton’s eating clubs, which hold a similar role on campus there to that of Greek organizations on other campuses, and we had every single one of these policies in place with the exception of the “bedroom key” rule (which seems like the most random, poorly-thought-out, and difficult-to-enforce of the UVA regulations). Bouncers were required any time we were on tap (and we could not hire students as bouncers); only beer could be served (no punch or hard liquor) and it had to be served by bartenders from a tap that was inaccessible to guests; a similar number of sober members had to be “on duty” (which included cleanup).Princeton’s social culture is far from perfect (it’s had its own negative headlines lately, some of which have been overblown), but having these regulations in place made things a lot easier for everybody, especially those of us who were in charge. The funny thing is, most of it wasn’t instituted with sexual assault in mind at all; most date back to when a male student about 25 years ago became incapacitated after a party and was electrocuted when he climbed on top of a moving train. Similarly, we were more concerned about things like fistfights and property damage than the possibility of sexual assault, which was barely part of the dialogue.(Oh, and one note of devil’s advocacy — the UK has a terrible binge drinking problem in spite of its lower drinking age.)

    1. Gotham Gal

      England’s binge drinking is insane. Totally right. I forgot about that. I believe that the lowering of the drinking age has caused more problems too. Drinking will happen. It seems like Princeton also had a knee jerk reaction because of one person doing something totally stupid.My kids drink. Their friends drink. Sometimes everyone over drinks which has to be learned at least once to learn how awful that is. I see all of their friends ( and them ) be able to come to dinner and enjoy a glass of wine. You only learn from doing it.

      1. Caroline McCarthy

        Oh yeah, and decades later students were still complaining about the university’s overreaction to that incident circa 1990. When I was going to parties as an undergrad before getting elected as an officer, I was beyond annoyed that we were restricted to the same terrible beer night after night as opposed to my (questionable) drinks of choice, which tended to involve peach schnapps.But once I took on a leadership role, the rules made more sense. (And I have no doubt that they evolved over time. I’m on my club’s graduate board now and have learned that some have tightened — now bartenders must be hired rather than student volunteers, for example — some have loosened, and some have changed entirely.) We wouldn’t have been able to keep parties under control without them, which is why it surprised me that UVA’s frats weren’t already similarly governed. And if we’d had one set of regulations but the club next door had different ones, that would’ve created even bigger messes all around.

      2. jonathanc

        The drinking age is connected to the driving age. 16 year olds who haven’t had their 10,000 hours of driving do not have the instinctual reactions that more experienced drivers do. Their reaction times are slower. Combine that with a drink, and they can be dangerous on the road. If you keep the drinking age at 21, you don’t have the double whammy of slower reaction times from inexperience + drinking. Hopefully. The argument “well, if they can vote and get drafted, they should be able to get a drink” ignores teen brain development.Both of our kids professed to be shocked at the binge drinking they saw in college. They grew up with a.) very moderate drinkers as parents, wine or beer was common but hard liquor was not, and b.) access to alcohol — it wasn’t forbidden fruit. They certainly consumed, but (after one or two bouts with excess and lessons learned) in moderation. I wonder if kids with parents at the extremes — heavy drinkers or teetotalers — have bigger challenges figuring out how to consume responsibly? Those kids who get crazy drunk a couple times and then figure out how to consume in moderation are not the issue in my mind. Its the ones who drink until they drop a couple times a week and on their way to being (functioning?) alcoholics who scare me. They number more than you know.

        1. Gotham Gal

          My guess it is the kids who grow in families where drinking is a forbidden fruit.My sister roomed with a woman in college who grew up in a family where alcohol was forbidden. When she got to college she went wild. Drank until she passed out at 5am every night for three nights. She was quite a spunky young woman. After she had got it out of her system she then figured out how to just enjoy herself. It was fascinating. My sister was freaked out but the good news is that her roommate just needed to get something out of her system.

          1. LE

            My guess it is the kids who grow in families where drinking is a forbidden fruit.I’m a big believer in that as well. Was raised in a family where there was no issue (at Passover or holidays) drinking at any age. [1] Likewise at my Bar Mitsvah my dad said it was ok (this was the 70’s) to try a cigarette. A few puffs and never again.[1] I’ve gotten drunk exactly 1 time. At Passover when I was maybe 12 (or 14 don’t recall exactly). Last time it ever happened. Didn’t like the feeling.

  2. Brandon Burns

    I think what’s been more important than education when it comes to smoking has been the cultural shift from smoking be cool to uncool. Having that hot guy or girl tell you “smoking is gross” when you’re just about to light up is the very definition of effective. And with so many celebrities and other people in the spotlight feeling and saying similar things, the shift continues to gain steam.So when it comes to college drinking behavior, I think above education, a cultural shift will need to happen.

    1. LE

      This is also true with race (and religion) issues as well btw. Big difference in how that is handled by parents (speaking to children) now vs. when I was growing up. Amazing shift.

  3. Erin

    I heard a good quote a couple weeks ago, “you don’t extinguish energy- you transform it”, or in the case of kids who don’t care about transformation yet, you divert it to other outlets. As you say, kids will always find a way to get drunk or high. They need adults to show them the responsible way to handle the bleh times in life when they’d otherwise reach for a drink/joint/cellphone/distraction from living.

  4. Sandy Grason

    There’s a great documentary called “Let’s talk about sex” that we watched when our girls were in middle school. Aussie filmmaker, talking to US & European parents about binge drinking & sex. Super interesting how our American philosophy to abstain influences our adult Childrens behaviors (Not in a good way). It was a good influence on our family discussions around these topics.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Will check it out

  5. Nick Devane

    Thanks for the thoughtful piece.The prescription drug problem is an interesting one as overdose has become the leading cause of injury death in the US over the last three years.…The issue I encounter most among people struggling with pill addictions is a path from a legitimate prescription at some point. As crazy as it sounds, the problem often starts with a surgery or wisdom teeth removal. Sadly in New York the resurgent heroin epidemic picks up many of these kids as pills supply becomes scarce at some point.…Its incredibly sad to see young people pass, and even harder to rationalize.The biggest issue in my mind surrounds the belief of partying being harmless fun, which it can/should be. It is difficult for young people to recognize in themselves, and peers, when something has become serious and the consequences much more dire.Hopefully more education around signals of this behavior and training for better peer intervention can begin to curb this epidemic.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Overdose is the leading cause of injury. That’s amazing.Education and peer to peer conversations are an absoluteThanks Nick

      1. Nick Devane

        Leading cause of *injury-death, surpassed traffic accidents in 2012

        1. Gotham Gal


  6. LE

    At what point will a Dean of a University of Senator or a Governor start thinking about the long term.The reward system (in politics for for that matter most of life) is not setup for long term results it’s setup for fast action “theater”. It’s really that simple.

  7. pointsnfigures

    Let em drink at 18. Banning kegs wasn’t a good idea either at colleges that did it. Now kids “pre-game” and drink hard liquor, do shots etc. We had an attitude in our house similar to yours it sounds like-although I didn’t want underage kids drinking in my home because of the legal ramifications. Now that they are 21, have at it. Be responsible. But if they would have been legal at 18, we would have opened the bar 3 years earlier.

    1. Gotham Gal

      I have no issues with kids drinking in our house.