A Rutgers University student died in a fall after a night of beer drinking last week. This latest campus tragedy comes at a time when, despite efforts by colleges to ban alcohol or educate students about its dangers, binge drinking continues to rise, according to the recentl released College Alcohol Study by the Harvard School of Public Health.
I am not surprised. Every spring, I teach a course called Alcohol, Science and Society, and I have learned that students drink to belong, to have fun and to identify with the image promulgated in this country that to drink is to be youthful, sexy and successful.
Students study, play and life in a world insulated from the rest of society. Still dependent, not yet considered adults, they may be among the most isolated of Americans. So they pursue with a vengeance membership in their peer group.
From its start in the early 1970's, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism called for teaching responsible drinking to college students. During the Reagan years, the country shifted from education to prohibition. Since then, heavy-handed policies have prevailed, based on the view that it's a weak strategy to preach responsible drinking to a group that is largely under the legal drinking age.
This approach is bankrupt, ineffective, hypocritical and even dangerous. We couldn't have made alcohol seem more alluring if we tried. We've created a new drinking game called 'Let's See Whether We Can Outwit the Authorities and Earn Status with Our Peers.' As long as we perpetuate this game, colleges and universities will miss an opportunity to do what they do best-- educate.
At universities and colleges, you see compulsory programs for fraternity leaders, or punishment for being caught with alcohol. Yet every book I've ever read on effective teaching says such a punitive approach is doomed to failure.
"Just say no" programs, whether delivered by reformed alcoholics or regular students, are of questionable value. Virginia Tech recently played what might be the ultimate education trump card by calling on faculty to pile on the homework on weekends so as to curtail students' free time. Desperate times call for desperate measures, I suppose, but what's next? A return to Saturday morning classes?
Some programs show promise. Northern Illinois University has surveyed students about their drinking habits, and the results show that the real level of drinking is nowhere near what the students perceive it to be. The hope is that when students realize this, they will set more moderate standards for themselves, and it seems to work.
In the aftermath of last year's drinking death at MIT, the mayor of Boston has called for radio spots and visual ads that show fashionably dressed college kids passed out by trash cans or clinging to toilet bowls, and, according to the Boston Globe, initial student reaction has been good. Indeed, the Harvard study, while reporting a slight increase in binge drinking, also reports a slight rise in the number of students abstaining from alcohol.
The most promising strategies put students in charge of changing the environment that leads to abusive drinking. Ten schools, my own included, have received grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to develop a multipronged approach to do just that.
Yet the politics of prohibition can stymie even the best plans. Lehigh students have said that they would like a place to socialize on campus that serves alcohol to those of age. So the university applied for a license to allow beer and wine sales in a campus pizza parlor. Alcohol sales were to be under rigid controls. But officials at the state Liquor Control Board shot it down, blustering about easy access to alcohol by underage students, and ignoring the healthy environment the idea would have produced.
Lehigh and other schools admit that they don't have all the answers.
They are willing to try new approaches and understand it's going to take
time. Administrators may not be free to say it, but I will: Prohibition
and compulsory education programs will never change the atmosphere on college
campuses that leads to binge drinking and its sometimes deadly repercussions.
Only the students can change it.