When I was a sophomore in high school, I was required by the school to take a Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) course simply titled “Health.” Sure, there were some blurbs about nutrition and exercise and why 15-year-olds shouldn’t powerlift, but the core of the class revolved around anti-drug and alcohol propaganda so idealistic, so unforgiving, that it was almost silly. DARE doesn’t work that well.
Intuitively, DARE asks its audience to resist the irresistible tide of peer pressure and the onset of late high school and college binge drinking and drug culture. DARE had been such a prevalent, if dismissible, presence in my life that I was shocked to learn from a friend from Germany last year that the drinking age in Munich was 16. While we Americans spent our formative years shuffling nervously and painfully sober in desks for six hours a day being lectured about the triumphs of being sober, our European contemporaries were getting it out of their system.
I’ve had the opportunity to interact with a few Europeans here and there in my formative years, including a close friend who no longer attends Lawrence and a fellow brother in Beta Theta Pi, and their thoughts generally are the same: Because the drinking age is sixteen, European teenagers in those countries fall in and then promptly out of love with binge drinking a couple of years earlier than we do. By the time they enter universities, outrageous “Project X”-style celebrations of drinking culture simply aren’t as thrilling as they were when their frontal lobes were even less developed than they are now.
Discussions of the legal drinking age in the United States, and a change thereof, have been floated around for a while. It’s highly unlikely the United States would even consider 16 as a potential legal drinking age. The American debate on the legal drinking age is generally 21 versus 18.
Some like to argue that if you can be drafted into the military and die for America, you should be able to have a drink in an American bar. On the opposite side, we know that our brains don’t develop until we’re about 25, so why would we even consider letting 18 year olds drink. Why is it that in some European countries the legal drinking age is 16 and the United States 21?
Aside from the politics that likely played a role in both, one of the largest roles in what affects drinking laws is drinking culture. In the United States, you can legally drink when you’re 21, but arguably enter drinking culture around the time of your senior year of high school or freshman year of college. This is why I firmly believe that the legal drinking age should remain 21, even if it is 16 to 18 in most of the world. What’s the biggest reason?
Think about your Welcome Week: All that Red Dog, all those brightly colored mixers, sloppy hook-ups and all the pot you might have smoked simultaneously. For the typical college binge drinker, the moment we learn how to schmooze upper classmen or buy a fake from China on the TOR browser, it’s all over. Now take all the stomach pumping and vomiting and maybe the lack of memory thereof, and multiply it by a gazillion — not five, or ten, or twenty. A gazillion.
American college drinking culture, which excels amongst its peers in destructiveness, would collapse like a dying star under its own weight if the legal drinking (and purchasing, to be clear) age was 18. It’s not the “forbidden fruit” argument that makes French and German teenagers averse to binge drinking by the time that they’re our age. They just get sick of it three or four years before we do. They enter university and break free from the rule of their parents and high school teachers with a vast resume of mistakes already built. They might not stop binge drinking, but at least those formative drinking years, equivalent to our freshman year, happen before they’re off on their own without any adult supervision.
For us, the transition from our homes to unsupervised dorm rooms would simply be too dangerous to work. The “if I can die for my country I should be able to drink in a bar argument” is a nice, shiny ethical argument, but it’s just that. Ethical arguments surrounding alcohol consumption are nice, but they don’t address the real world pervasive binge drinking and the potential (and usually fully realized) damage that binge drinking causes.
I encourage a healthy debate on the topic. I really do. I’m certainly not wiser than anybody reading my work. I do, however, ask my readers to join me as I violently shake my head, tug on my hair and wince at the thought of what would happen if the United States lowered the legal drinking age to 18.