Why Lower the Drinking Age? To Avoid Responsibility

by Christopher Paslay


I’ll tell it to you straight: The Amethyst Initiative, the movement by college administrators to lower the drinking age to 18 in the United States, is a sham.  A fraud.  A farce in five acts.


Founded by John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont, and supported by presidents from over 100 of the nation’s top universities, the Amethyst Initiative argues that current drinking laws actually encourage binge drinking by college students on campus. 


“This is a law that is routinely evaded,” said John McCardell.  “It is a law that the people at whom it is directed believe is unjust and unfair and discriminatory.”


John McCardell and his colleagues have dressed up the Amethyst Initiative quite nicely.  At first glance, the organization’s aim to support “informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old drinking age” seems almost respectable.  So does its mission to “call upon elected officials to weigh all the consequences of current alcohol policies and to invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use.”


But when you cut through all of Amethyst’s political rhetoric, the organization’s ulterior motive becomes clear: To free America’s colleges and universities from the responsibility of dealing with underage drinking. 


I am not the first person to suggest this.  Mothers Against Drunk Driving has spoken out against McCardell’s campaign to lower the drinking age as well.


The Amethyst Initiative’s reasoning is quite faulty when you examine it closely.  Their central tenet is that “Twenty-one is not working”.  On their website they liken the current drinking age to prohibition, and insist that “alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.”


In other words, just like with sex, the “abstinence-only” model isn’t working.  If we lowered the drinking age to 18, kids wouldn’t feel pressured to “binge” drink.  They’d be exposed to alcohol three years earlier, and as a result, they’d learn to drink responsibly. 


Please.  This is the familiar “the United States is too puritanical” argument, an attempt to compare the drinking habits of Americans to those of the Italians, Spanish and French.  The argument is that Europeans—liberal and unrestrained—grow up drinking wine with meals from a young age, so there is no need for rebellious, clandestine binge drinking. 


There is only one major flaw with this argument: America isn’t Europe.  And despite the election of Barack Obama, we will never be.  Unlike Europeans, Americans can’t quite grasp the concept of moderation.  Our culture clearly believes the motto that more is better.  This is true from fast food to SUVs, from a person’s annual income to a woman’s breast size.  More, more, more, more, more.     


The problem of college binge drinking is much more complex than age.  To combat alcohol abuse on American campuses we must first fight our culture’s need for instant gratification; in short, our society must start teaching its young people about dignity and restraint. 


Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a well known American Buddhist abbot, addressed the need for Americans to resist their self-destructive impulses in his essay entitled, “The Dignity of Restraint” (I highly recommend clicking on the link and reading the whole thing).  In it Bhikkhu states, “If we don’t have any restraint, we don’t have any control over where our lives are going. Anything that comes our way immediately pulls us into its wake, and we lose our sense of priorities, of what’s really worthwhile, of what’s not worthwhile, of the pleasures we’d gain by saying ‘No’ to other pleasures.


It’s important to realize the role that restraint can play in finding true well-being for ourselves. It helps us realize that we’re not giving up anything we really need. There’s a part of us that resists this truth, and our culture hasn’t been very helpful. The lessons our culture teaches us—to go out and buy, buy, buy, be greedy, give in—are all over the place. And what kind of dignity comes from following those messages? The dignity of a fish gobbling down bait.


I find Thanissaro’s phrase “give in” very telling; that’s exactly what the Amethyst Initiative is asking lawmakers to do: give in to underage drinkers to spare universities the inconvenience of a true crackdown. 


Will dropping the drinking age from 21 to 18 temper a young  person’s urge to consume alcohol?  Not on your life.    


The Amethyst Initiative is a bunch of smoke and mirrors.  College presidents must find solutions to campus alcoholism rather than trying to pass the buck by redefining the law.


3 thoughts on “Why Lower the Drinking Age? To Avoid Responsibility

  1. I have this argument all the time with people. I grew up in an Italian household. My grandfather made his own wine. All of the grandkids had their own shotglasses filled with wine with our dinner meals. To this day I HATE merlot. It’s great for including in sauce but that’s about it. Out of the 10 grandkids, only one had (past tense) a problem with alcohol and it was = gasp = domestic beer! For shame! When I went to Italy a few years ago, I noticed there was an age restriction (12 years old) for “hard” liquor such as scotch. Otherwise, open season with the wine. Also, to add to the puritanicalism (is there such a word?) of the U.S.A., I noticed porn in Italy was located on the bottom magazine racks AND not covered. Not one person (over or under-age) was browsing. My father collected Playboys (tame stuff in this day and age) and it was always available for my siblings and I to look at. In my case, I tend to believe the “if it’s available at a young age, it won’t be a problem later on.” But I also believe we are a country of buck passers. We tend to pass on responsibility to someone else. It’s just the American way.

  2. Mary,

    Interesting perspective. Europeans seem to be more open and hospitable than Americans. I was in France and Italy for six weeks in the summer of 2001, and I remember dinner taking at least two hours to eat almost every night. And during dinner, whether at a restaurant or at someone’s home, my glass of wine (or beer) was refilled only once, and it was expected that you made it last the whole evening. I remember getting frustrated, because the waiter wasn’t there to keep my glass full (and it seemed impossible to catch a nice buzz). I learned quickly that this was the culture. Dinner was about socializing, not about getting drunk. In America, things are different. Bar tenders are ready and waiting to refill your beer before it’s even empty (same goes for the wait staff). In America, we don’t savor our food. We gobble it down so we can get more, or so we can move on to the next activity at hand. Restaurants get you in and out so they can clear the table and make more money. That’s why lowering the drinking age won’t work in the US. It’s not about age, it’s about culture. Americans could start drinking at 12, and the only difference would be that kids would start binge drinking in middle school instead of college. That’s just my opinion, of course. Anyway, thanks for sharing your views. It’s always nice to hear multiple points of view.

    –Christopher Paslay

  3. The number one “best job in the United States” (voted on by thousands of people after looking at the benefits and perks) is a college professor. College professors and administrators also have carte blanche on money–just raise tuition, and on free speech. Since they have it so good–well–they want it to be even better. There is a movement on many campuses (I know it’s not all) to teach less than 15 hours a week. Why? 15 hours is too much work. For some high level professors, 9 hours is too much. Now the drinking problem hits a peak. What to do? Pass it on to someone else. IT IS DEFINITELY TOO MUCH WORK!
    A final note on the European view–I agree with Mary and Chris. The cultures are too different. Chris hit it on the head. MORE, MORE, MORE.
    It only ends with excess and tragedy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s