Source: NYTimes Magazine 10/23

THE WAY WE LIVE NOW The Battle Of the Binge

Why do college students drink so stupidly? Because drinking intelligently is against the law. By JACK HITT

Back in the 70's -- my college time -- an English professor I barely knew named Ted Stirling spotted me on the quad and invited me to a small, informal reading after supper. Maybe he felt sorry for me. I had marooned myself in the French ghetto of la litterature comparative, and had further exiled myself in the cul-de-sac between Latin and Spanish. So I went that night to sit on stuffed sofas beneath scowling bishops in gilt frames and to discuss Wallace Stevens's poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Afterward, Stirling bought the students a pitcher of beer at the pub, and we strained to act intelligently and comfortably while drinking with an elder. ("Stevens an insurance agent! Surely you jest, Professor. Why, that would make poets the unacknowledged underwriters of the world, wouldn't you agree?")

I started thinking about how I learned to drink at college -- I went to Sewanee, in Tennessee -- when I read about a recent Harvard study that found that 43 percent, nearly half, of all college students today "binge drink," defined as regularly pounding down four or five stiff ones in a row in order to get blasted. The pandemic is so severe that 113 college presidents united a few weeks ago to publicly admit that a generation is in peril. They have also rolled out a public-service ad, which employs that brand of sarcasm Madison Avenue thinks young people find amusing. "Binge Beer," it says. "Who says falling off a balcony is such a bad thing?" See, you're supposed to realize that falling off a balcony is, in fact, a bad thing.

Other educational tactics include dry rock concerts, abstinent fraternities, "mock 'tail" parties, a Web site of course ( and a new CD-ROM called "Alcohol 101" and featuring a "virtual party" that segues into an anatomical lecture about how quickly the bloodstream absorbs alcohol. Look out, Myst.

What no one seems to have noticed is that the rise in binging has occurred at the very same time that the legal drinking age has been raised everywhere to 21. If you're 18 to 21, it's the 1920's again and a mini-Prohibition is in full swing. As a result, moderate drinking has almost vanished among students and, more tellingly, from school-sponsored events. How anachronistic it feels to describe what used to be routine college functions, like a Dizzy Gillespie concert or a Robert Penn Warren reading, followed by a reception, with drinks and hors d'oeuvres, at which students were expected to at least pretend to be cool about it, i.e. practice drinking. I frequently received dinner invitations from faculty members like Tom Spaccarelli, a Spanish professor who served up tapas while uncorking a Rioja for a few students. We handled the long stems of our wineglasses as confidently as a colt its legs.

And there was always another occasion. Sewanee had dozens of those inane college societies like Green Ribbon, a group whose invitation to membership I haughtily trashed after Professor Paschall, my sponsor, explained that the point was nothing more than "getting dressed up and having cocktails with some alumni."

But I began to see the point about 10 years after graduation when I returned to Sewanee to give a little talk. Afterward, I took some students to the pub where they sheepishly ordered cider. At first, I thought this new college life -- clean and sober -- was a good idea. Then my nephew, a junior there at that time, explained the typical partygoer's schedule: drive off campus or hide in the woods (often alone), guzzle a pint of bourbon, eat a box of breath mints and then stumble into the dry sorority party serenely blotto. My nephew knew two students who had died -- falling off a cliff, blood poisoning -- and five others who had been paralyzed or seriously injured in car accidents because of binging. For a college with roughly 1,300 students, this constitutes a statistical massacre.

We drank wildly in the 70's, too. The Phi's had their seasonal Screaming Bull blowout. Kegs were easy to find on weekends. I have drunk tequila only once in my life, and this being a family newspaper, my account of that evening can proceed no further. I was a member of the Sewanee Temperance League, whose annual outdoor party pledged to "rid the world of alcohol by consuming it all ourselves." But all those events were crowded social occasions, almost always with professors and their spouses in attendance -- not prowling alone in the woods with a pint. After college, when you got a job, Screaming Bull opportunities quickly tapered off; the working world was different yet, in time, quite familiar, like an evening with Ted Stirling or a dinner at Tom Spaccarelli's.

This year, Ohio University's zero-tolerance program has proudly outlawed empty beer cans in the dorm. Nearly 7 percent of the entire 16,000-student enrollment last year was disciplined for alcohol abuse, often handed over as criminals to the Athens Municipal Court. Despite all the tough bluster, the binge rate among students there hasn't budged from an astounding 60 percent.

For college students, booze has been subsumed into the Manichaean battle of our drug war. It's either Prohibition or cave into the hippies' legalization schemes. And it seems fairly unreversible. Legislatures raised the drinking minimum in reaction to the raw emotion deployed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Then colleges were bullied by insurance companies that threatened to jack up liability rates if administrators didn't take aggressive action. The old days of looking the other way, when the police used to pick up toasted students and quietly drive them to their dorms, seems like collaboration in today's harsh light.

There probably is a way out of this, but it is going to require some larger cultural changes that will make us see the irony, even cruelty, of infantilizing certain young adults. The very people who have urged this situation into existence are too often the people who vent about the increasing lack of "responsibility" in our society (demanding, for example, that juvenile offenders be treated in court as adults). But for middle-class kids in college, they make responsibility an ever-receding ideal, never quite grasped in the pampered ease of an extended adolescence.

In the early 70's, the big political fight among college students was for the right to vote. The argument held that kids who were considered old enough to die for their country and order a drink in a bar should be able to choose their political leaders. It is back to two out of three again. But booze is not like the vote, which can be ignored to no one's immediate peril. Rather, alcohol consumption, like table manners or sexual behavior, is a socialized phenomenon, which if not taught, yields up a kind of wild child. By denying the obvious pleasure of drinking and not teaching it by example, is anyone really surprised that we've loosed upon the world a generation of feral drunks?

Jack Hitt, a frequent contributor to the magazine, last wrote about campaign finance reform.

October 24, 1999

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company