Friday, February 16, 2007

Keep Drinking Until the Post Hoc Argument Sounds Logical

Today's Inside Higher Ed calls attention to the efforts of John M. McCardell, Jr., retired president of prestigious Middlebury College, to fight rampant alcohol abuse on college campuses by lowering the legal drinking age. McCardell's reasoning sounds counter-intuitive, but it goes like this:
  • Since the legal age for drinking was raised to 18, alcohol abuse on college campuses has, if anything, grown.
  • Since underage undergrads can't drink legally, they drink "in the shadows," away from the social structures and pressures that could restrain their excesses.

McCardell criticizes the argument that teenage traffic deaths have declined since the drinking age has been raised, noting that cars and highways are simply safer than they used to be.

We say good for McCardell to note the flaw in the post hoc argument that illogically asserts that because a drop in traffic deaths followed the raising of the drinking age, the latter must have caused the former. We also stipulate the fact of rampant alcohol abuse in the shadows of America's colleges.

We say bad for McCardell that his own reasoning is post hoc: that raising the drinking age must have caused the increase in alcohol abuse on campuses, so judiciously lowering it will decrease abuse. We also grieve the fact that we have heard similar flawed reasoning from other officials at other prestigious colleges.

We agree instead with what is reported in the article of Drew Hunter, president of the Bacchus Network, a national group that helps colleges discourage alcohol abuse. Hunter insists that late adolescents who want to drink mostly want to drink to excess, and that they will do so regardless of the law.

Everything we know about this issue suggests that Hunter is exactly right and McCardell is deluded. Undergrads who drink aren't connoisseurs. They drink cheap, tasteless beer or cheap, high-proof liquor to get drunk as quickly as possible. We'll leave it to others more familiar with the human psyche to explore the layers of social unease and sexual maladjustment that seem to drive these behaviors. But there's no question that moderation does not play a significant role in the alcohol consumption of most underage drinkers.

Let's not kid ourselves about kids who drink. Alcohol use is fraught with danger for adults. Undergrads aren't adults. And we don't apologize for that statement.


Bryan D said...

Part of the problem with lowering the drinking age in this country would undoubtedly be that generally moderate and responsible individual in their late teen will not have been raised in cultures that instruct moderate and responsible use of alcohol. In the US the case is typically an "either/or." Either households are teetotalers or they are raging alcoholics it seems.

Perhaps if this culture was more activley involved in actively promoting a balanced view of alcohol and its (mis)use, young Americans might be able to handle the availability of alcohol at a younger age. It is this groups of individuals in the middle, those who would actually drink (irresponsibly) were it legal or possible to do so who should be the focus of discussion. Determined malfeasants will, and have, proven that they will abuse alcohol regardless of the law (see Ohio University).

For instance, I consider societies such as Germany where alcohol can be consumed as young as 16, but driving not until 18. Germany has a prevalent culture of beer consumption, but this causes their youth to be more comfortable and responsible concerning it. Part of the danger cocerning the introduction of alcohol to still-maturing adults (be they 18 or 21) is the novelty of the thing. Were it not novel, it likely wouldn't be "the thing."

But what do I know, after all, I'm just an undergrad. I won't dawdle on that little irony.

Nick the Eloquent said...

I would say that it is generally true that undergrads are not adults. Consider however the case of our friend Butz, Butz is 25 and has supported himself all the way through college. I think he would be considered an adult by SWNID even. I would like to know something, if anybody has this info: Do non-traditional undergrads sign the conduct agreement?

Under-age drinking is illegal, that's the end of that discussion, but I feel like our school's policy towards undergraduate drinking is fueled more by dollars than it is by principle (ha!). If we removed the conduct agreement the alumni would send their money elsewhere, and we can't have that.

Bryan is right, our culture encourages overindulgence in everything, not just drinking. College is a great time to learn a great many things, not the least of which is how not to be a jackass.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

We deign these comments appropriate for our SWNIDish response.

First, as a wise world traveler, we affirm that other cultures have different attitudes toward alcohol and youth. But we are not at all comfortable with holding up, say, the German and French approaches as superior. Our understanding is that statistically those countries struggle with alcohol abuse about to the extent that the United States does. Israel is maybe the only country we could hold up as an exemplar in this regard, and we're not sure that a culture like Israel's could be replicated elsewhere.

Does SWNID consider a 25-year-old undergraduate an adult (we will speak of a hypothetical one rather than anyone in particular)? Our answer is predictably paradoxical: yes and no. A 25-year-old is more of an adult than a 19-year-old but less of an adult than a 35-year-old. We confess ourselves not to think of ourself, mired in middle age, as fully adult even yet. We do not give ourself permission, for example, to partake of "adult" entertainments. We continue to look forward to the day when we will sense our own moral judgment so much as to deserve the title "adult" which our culture bestows as a label of utter moral liberty.

Seriously, the point is that generalizations have to be made for purposes of law and institutional regulation, and that those generalizations have to be made on the basis of what's generally true, not on the basis of exceptions. Undergraduates are generally between the ages of 18 and 22. And people of those ages who want to consume alcohol generally don't want to do it in moderation. We apologize to exceptions with the reminder that "that's life."

Your question about a certain institution's behavioral standards for its undergraduates in regard to alcohol partakes of the common fallacy that criticizes the motives that prompt the policy instead of the wisdom of the policy itself. But we will address both. On the wisdom of the policy, it is doubtless true that many--maybe most--undergraduate students at said institution could exercise laudable moderation or voluntary abstinence in the consumption of alcoholic beverages if given the chance. The policy exists, however, so that the entire community, as an expression of solidarity in the body of Christ, can stand together for the sake of those who would not exercise moderation. The same, by the way, can be said for other onerous undergraduate policies, like curfews and attendance regulations. We covenant together to give up the liberty of the many for the benefit of the few, not unlike Paul's exhortations regarding food and drink in 1 Corinthians and Romans. This is, of course, not at all hard for those who worship the Christ who voluntarily gave up way more for people way less deserving.

Now, as to motive, which is, we insist, a matter of complete indifference. Would said institution lose support if it permitted alcohol consumption among its undergraduates? Doubtless. But is that what motivates officials to forbit booze? No. The rule stands, per discussion above, on its own wisdom, and it happens to be the blessed case that supporters of said institution see the situation exactly as officials of the institution do. To put it differently, everyone knows that said institution would lose money if it permitted alcohol. But no one is itching to change the rule if only that were not the case. We officials think as the supporters think, that the risks outweigh the rewards.

Now, a deeper matter. Let us not forget those many walking among us who are recovering addicts. I personally intend to stand with them by my abstinence. They must abstain; I choose to abstain with them. I lose little by that action, but they lose much if, surrounded by a social network of moderate consumption, they return to what is for them a bitter and deadly slavery.

JB in CA said...

"Undergrads aren't adults." From my experience, neither are adults.

Anonymous said...

Oye, SWNID a social conservative, out to legislate morality. Next thing you know, he will be pro-life.

Anonymous said...

Oye, SWNID a social conservative, out to legislate morality. Next thing you know, he will be pro-life.

Calus The Great said...

Even supposing the increased drinking age was the cause of the increased alcohol abuse, there is no reason to think that lowering it will curb the trend. There is already an entrenched culture of binge drinking. Even if the changed drinking age catalyzed the culture, it does not sustain it.