Let's drink to it!

Posted: Feb 28, 2001 12:00 AM
Drink to what? Anything. In the current alumni magazine from Yale, a 20-year-old sophomore (Ms. Kara Lowentheil does not herself drink) says of her classmates that "they're very funny, very bright, very interesting, motivated and intelligent people." And they are "hardly at the brink of despair and isolation. Apart from weekend nights, when they resemble nothing so much as a bunch of inebriated chimpanzees."

At Harvard, professor Henry Wechsler's landmark college alcohol study revealed that binge drinking on college campuses was much more extensive than anyone believed. "Our society has taken alcohol as a rite of passage. It's like living next to a fish factory -- after a while you don't smell it anymore."

But it's hard not to smell something when a student dies. That happened last week at the Uiversity of Minnesota to a freshman who had been drinking beer (recall the rule of thumb: one beer equals one wine equals one vodka). At Dartmouth, the fraternities (on terminal leave) have served beer to members and guests for as long as they can consume it, which is very long, especially for those who are inspired by the achievements of "Animal House" prototypes.

Writing three years ago at Princeton, undergraduate Wes Tooke rejected the easygoing assumption that it was always so, as witness, e.g., F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose citation is not reassuring given that he died of drink. (The implication is that if you write "The Great Gatsby," it's OK to go on and die from booze.) It was not always so, wrote Tooke; drinking is more intense today. Statistics from the Princeton Health Center record that the number of students treated for alcohol poisoning more than doubled between 1983 and 1999.

What to do? There is a hard libertarian edge out there that can't be entirely ignored. One Princeton student, a former varsity athlete and a campus leader, said it in so many words: "I am 20 years old. What I choose to do at 2 in the morning in my club is my business."

There isn't really a consensus on Society vs. the College Drinker. There are great swings in attitude on what, if anything, should be done about it. At the University of Rhode Island recently, one fraternity voted to go dry. But that sounds like Prohibition as an answer to alcoholism. Professor Wechsler defines the binge drinker as the male who consumes five drinks in an evening, the female who has four. In contrast, some universities opt to help to mitigate the problem through a sequestration of sorts. If you confine the kids' drinking to the college area, they will disport there and lessen the problem of the drunken car ride coming back from the out-of-town bar.

At Princeton, in the clubs, students seem to feel "immune from the law," Tooke reported. "After all, why shouldn't we? Last Sunday, police cars drove up and down Prospect Avenue (fraternity row) all day, yet no police officer ever entered a club ... and you can't tell me they didn't have probable cause. Too often, Princeton seems like a consequence-free environment where students can break street lights or throw up all over their bathroom and somebody else will quietly clean up the mess."

The mess is a good word for it. College-age Americans, perhaps especially in the Ivy League, are greatly cosseted. On the other hand, much is expected of them. Mr. Tooke recommended among other things more university-sponsored extracurricular activities that aren't alcohol-lubricated. Ms. Lowentheil launches her suggestion by reminding the readers that she is not talking about the problems of a tiny minority. "I always have to laugh when my parents ask if anyone 'binge drinks' at Yale, because there isn't any other kind of drinking here. A good number of people start drinking around 9 p.m. and just keep going until they throw up, pass out, run out of alcohol, or manage to make it back to their room with the object of their desires, at which point they are usually too drunk even to get their clothes off."

What is her bright idea? "It's perfectly understandable that Yale students need a way to escape a bit. But we cannot seem to accept the idea of just relaxing and consciously spending some time not thinking. It's just not the Yale way. We don't do yoga. We don't sit around and stare at the walls. Instead, we go drinking. ... There must be a better way."

Of course there is, which is called m-o-d-e-r-a-t-i-o-n. Though the idea of inducing many college students not to drink is oddly appealing. H. L. Mencken observed years ago that the complaint against Calvin Coolidge that he spent too many hours in the White House asleep failed to acknowledge the benefits to the country when a president is asleep. When he is awake, he is usually curtailing the liberties of the people.

There is always, of course, the search for the root complaint. Alcohol consumption is in part escapist. From what do our students seek escape?