America has an interesting relationship with restriction and excess. There is a part of the nation’s consciousness which seeks comfort through modesty in dress, personality, and consumption; at the same time, there is a contrasting desire for more, to push limits, to earn ungodly amounts of money, to consume unhealthy amounts of sugar and drink excessive amounts of alcohol. These contradictory American values feed into each other; the more something is taboo, the more desire there is to indulge in it and the more it is indulged in, the more it is restricted. This is the process which has generated the status of underage drinking in the United States. Since the federal government moved to raise the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 in 1984, the measure has proven to be ineffective at preserving societal well-being and nowhere is this more evident than at colleges.
As a resident assistant in a first year residence hall, the smell of vomit in the bathroom on Saturday morning is something I, and every other on-campus resident, have been well-acquainted with. Most of the residents in first year dorms are under the age of 21 and thus cannot legally drink, but this is obviously a meaningless deterrent. S. Georgia Nugent, president emerita at Kenyon College, has argued that “by outlawing moderate use of alcohol in appropriate social contexts and with adult oversight, we have driven more drinking underground, where it has taken the very dangerous form of ‘pre-gaming.’” When underaged students drink, they drink like they may never be able to drink again, resorting to excessive consumption of hard liquor rather than a few casual bottles of beer. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 90 percent of alcohol consumed by those under the age of 21 is consumed by binge drinkers.
Binge-drinking isn’t some sort of widespread phenomenon amongst human beings. Many countries with lower drinking ages face the issue to a less significant degree. But for the United States, binge drinking didn’t become a national crisis until after the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed.
With this said, the raising of the drinking age has actually lowered the amount of individuals between the ages of 16 and 20 who died in car accidents with positive blood-alcohol levels. This does not mean that this is the only or best solution or that it hasn’t caused a whole host of other issues along the way.
John McCardell Jr., former president at Middlebury College, argued that students should be educated on how to drink responsibly, and their first foray into drinking should be monitored on campus or out in the open where bartenders or onlookers have the ability to step in.
Other ideas that have been thrown around include lowering the drinking age to 19 instead of 18 so that the drinking is confined to colleges, and also issuing alcohol permits to 18-year-olds who take a course and which can be revoked upon infraction. There are options for reducing irresponsible and self-destructive consumption of alcohol, but an arbitrarily high drinking age which only makes more dangerous drinking habits more attractive is not it. I don’t want to be mistaken, I am not championing underage drinking in any way, I just want to be able to go to the bathroom on a Saturday morning without having to endure the smell of lemonade Svedka vomit.