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Education in Chicago: Binge Drinking Reveals a Desperate Boredom With College

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Before I state my opinions on why college students by the millions drink themselves into insensibility four nights of every week, I'm going to give the reader who may know nothing of this subject a little recent history.

For some reason that escapes me, the big metropolitan dailies in this great republic of ours have been abuzz this summer with stories, editorials, and letters about "binge drinking" in college.

It must be a slow news summer. The appalling statistics of campus drunkenness and alcoholism haven't changed much in 50 years, except to get worse.

This blathering comes after last summer's buzz about the same subject, a PR effort to lower the legal drinking age from 21 to l8, started by a group of 120 college presidents calling itself the "Amethyst Initiative."

Our leaders of higher education admitted their failure and desperation, while saying nothing about ignoring the carnival outside their doors for five decades and more.

But being the big bold dreamers and decisive leaders that they are, the presidents didn't really commit to the lower drinking age. No, startled and scared by the storm of criticism their fatuous idea aroused, they hastily backtracked and announced that they merely wanted to start an "informed discussion" about lowering the drinking age.

The New York Times, in an equally namby-pamby editorial last fall, took the college presidents to task for their rash enthusiasm about a preliminary, tentative, non-binding, feeling-out sort of discussion.

Readers, if you'd been studying these college presidents' proposals for fighting alcoholism on their campuses as I have, you too would be smiling sardonically at the ineffectuality of their "ideas."

Three of these ideas: (1) Massive PR and advertising campaigns in their schools' newspapers full of dire facts, stern warnings, and useless appeals, (2) requiring incoming freshmen to take an alcohol education course, and (3) lowering the legal drinking age to 18.

College presidents now threaten to supplant high school principals as the new national symbol of moral and intellectual bankruptcy, imbecility, and incompetence. Just consider the president of the University of Illinois, who wrote a book on leadership.

At least the presidents have given up on homeopathic remedies for alcoholism. These remedies relied on boring, ineffective special campaigns of education to halt a spreading plague caused by an ersatz product falsely labeled "education."

This is exactly like a college president trying to fight undergraduate alcoholism by hosting a nightly multi-keg beer bash on his front lawn.

They have now proposed just about everything except the one measure that might work: suspending students who get drunk, and expelling the habitual drunks.

Not that I trust one statistic about college binge drinking in the most complete survey of the subject so far, the Harvard University report. I think Harvard and all the rest of the survey takers and scientists far underreport the amount of drinking that goes on.

I do believe that 44 percent of college students are binge drinking (binge drinking is defined as taking five or more drinks for males, four drinks for females, in relatively rapid succession at least once in a two-week period).

But I distrust the answers given by young people to survey questions asked about their vices. I think young adults, just like older adults, have a powerful interest in minimizing those vices. And I know from my own experience that it's almost impossible to accept at face value anything said by a heavy drinker.

So, in light of the above, I believe that the percentage of binge college drinkers is at least 55 or 60 percent, not 44 percent, of the undergraduate population.

But there are other vitally important questions to be asked. How many students get high (that is, not dead drunk) twice a week? Three times? Four times or more?

Is it necessary for me to point out that two beers chugged quickly can impair for hours a student's ability to study or read or write, just as surely as five beers consumed over the course of one hour may clinically poison him or her?

How much of this drinking just below binge level goes on?

Here's the reason The New York Times gives for campus binge drinking: "The higher minimum age of 21 for legal drinking is not the problem. It is the culture of drinking at school."

Now we know. The Times says college students drink because, well, because they drink.

Not only is this weak, it's tautological.

Here are the real reasons:

(1) The point of college in America is to acquire a social stamp rather than the ability or the liking for an intellectual life. No one except the most serious student has any reason to husband their best, freshest energies for class.

(2) What most students are asked to do in the way of study and mind work lacks the spur of difficulty, even in core subjects. College is culpably easy. As one articulate student at MIT put it in a letter to The Wall Street Journal,

"The solution to binge drinking on campuses is simple: College curriculums need to be more rigorous. If college programs required their students to put in a significant number of hours per week doing work related to their classes, campus drinking would soon find itself limited to one of two nights a week. Furthermore, those few nights a week [of drinking] would be more moderate. . ."

(3) Students are bored to death by what they "study." The school they attend ignores the Great Questions. The Great Books are conspicuous by their absence, or by their Bigfoot-like re-appearance from time to time in schools desperate for a curriculum idea that will re-animate the cold corpse of collegiate intellectual life.

Instead of the classics, students get the Cafeteria Curriculum, where any nameable activity in life may pop up as the latest "major."

Students are at least dimly aware that "Methods of Real Estate Management" is not a real subject, and does not satisfy anyone's lust to know "the best that has been thought" on subjects that have engaged superior minds for 3,000 years.

(4) Unlike varsity footballers or rowers, who worry obsessively about their prowess in their chosen sport, the average student does not fear that he may not be strong or nimble or quick enough of mind in his subject. He has no anxiety about lack of preparation. He's not called upon to sacrifice sleep or pleasure for the sake of either team or a highly-prized voluntary activity.

(5) The student's casual attitude about his studies is more than matched by the corresponding casualness with which the full professor in the modern "great public research university" treats his teaching duties.

Here is the essence of why things have gone terribly wrong in our colleges and universities: What this pandemic of drunkenness records is the death of teaching, and the removal of the undergraduate as the central concern of the college and the university.

The death-agonies of teaching occurred in the l960s. The hearts and minds of the full professors, the stars of the "great public research university," are now engaged by research, not teaching.

Teaching is dead, long live King Research! But if you want to know what the substitution of the prestige of research for good teaching by leading faculty members does to the morale of undergraduates, just look at the statistics of campus drunkenness. College presidents finally have admitted that it's the most serious problem they face.

And this sickening Thursday-through-Sunday drunken debauchery denotes the absence of mind in the one place where intelligence, reflection, and sobriety in every sense ought to set the tone for the entire institution.

(6) There are no serious consequences for drunkenness and for sleeping through class in one's seat, missing class, or missing assignment deadlines.

Researchers have found that in the last 27 years, binge drinking by men 18 to 20 who did not attend college dropped by more than 30 percent, but the percentage of binge drinkers in college remained unchanged.

One suspects that the non-college men faced more serious consequences for arriving at a job hungover or late than did the college men. Consequences such as losing one's job, or being written up or suspended.

John J. Holden, an adjunct professor at Hudson Valley Community College, sums up what the misguided leniency of American universities has done to higher education in a recent letter to The Wall Street Journal:

"'Just why the college crowd continues to drink so heavily' is no mystery to this teacher. Students can get away with it.

"Witness the large numbers of students who typically miss Friday morning classes because they're still sleeping off Thursday night's bacchanalia. Or the multitudes who regularly fail to complete assignments on time, blithely assuming that their hackneyed excuses actually excuse their behavior."

(7) The lack of intellectual adventure in college life. That loathsome phrase at the service of high school counselors, "a good fit," says it all. "I think Marlborough College would be a good fit for you, Sarah" gives away the game.

College has now become just another process to be gone through. It's a game of qualifying and a predictable, mutual process of adjustment of human being and institution.

Both parties agree to a program that will bring a success in a predictable career in a predictable profession for the student, and for the institution, another reliable $200-a-year donor to the alumni fund.

Students who drink to get drunk want to feel alive, as they obviously do not feel alive, entombed with 500 of their fellows in some cavernous lecture hall, listening to an inept T. A. whose disjointed lecture follows a textbook written by the T. A.'s adviser.

As the president of a San Diego University fraternity said in an NPR interview four years ago:

"The biggest activity at the end of the night when we get drunk and all the girls go home is, we all meet up in our chapter room, just all the guys, and we have huge wrestling matches. Everyone's drunk, everyone's rolling around. It's a fun time. It's great."

Is this really what college has come to? Yes, and it's even worse than the public suspects. We don't have any idea of what we really want college to do. At this late date, we can't decide whether we want institutions of professional vocational training, or whether we want to try for the Holy Grail of higher education for everybody: "a liberal education."

Huge classes taught perfunctorily by bored, distracted T. A.'s, an assembly-line feel to the whole of undergraduate education, non-existent subject matter haired up and eked out to look like the real thing in dozens and hundreds of non-existent subjects, legitimate subjects divided into thinner and thinner slices taught by narrower and narrower specialists every year, and the whole sordid show already prohibitively expensive: One wonders why 100% of undergraduates aren't drinking themselves into oblivion four nights a week.