University prof wants to put drinking on the curriculum

John McCardell (a president emeritus and a professor of history at Middlebury College) in the Atlantic argues that the US national drinking age of 21 is a failure -- it has failed to stop underage drinking, and has instead driven it underground and made it more dangerous. I grew up with Ontario's drinking age of 19, but I started drinking at parties and so on at about 14 or 15, often to bad result; ironically, once I was old enough to drink in bars, I drank a lot less, as the culture in bars was generally different from the parties I'd drunk at until then.
The way our society addresses this problem has been about as effective as a parachute that opens on the second bounce. Clearly, state laws mandating a minimum drinking age of 21 haven't eliminated drinking by young adults--they've simply driven it underground, where life and health are at greater risk. Merely adjusting the legal age up or down doesn't work--we've tried that already and failed. But federal law has stifled the ability to conceive of more creative solutions in the only place where the Constitution says such debate should happen--in the state house--because any state that sets its drinking age lower than 21 forfeits 10 percent of its federal highway funds. This is called an "incentive."

So what might states, freed from this federal penalty, do differently? They might license 18-year-olds--adults in the eyes of the law--to drink, provided they've completed high school, attended an alcohol-education course (that consists of more than temperance lectures and scare tactics), and kept a clean record.

Teach Drinking (via Kottke)


  1. Down here in Arse-Endia you can drink once you turn 18, which is also about the time you finish school, and it works just fine.

    If you’re old enough to go to Iraq and shoot people you should be allowed to have a beer afterwards.

  2. Not to move the Overton Window or anything, but why do we need a drinking age at all? Many places in the world have very lax drinking laws, or do not enforce the laws they have. If a person is tall enough to reach the bar, they’ll serve him a drink. Now, I’m not saying that kids should go out on regular drinking binges. That’s obviously not a good idea.

    The best place for kids to learn how to manage drinking is from their parents and other trusted adults in their communities. The time to do that is while they are still learning how to manage the behaviors they need to master before they are adults. Draconian drinking laws work against this idea. Even in states where minors may drink legally in the presence of parents or guardians, there is a stigma attached to it: that allowing kids to drink any alcohol at all is tantamount to child abuse. This is due in no small part to the high drinking age, and also to the puritanical culture we live in.

    It is often said that nothing is so attractive to a teenager as is the taboo. Perhaps toning down the anti-drinking rhetoric, and the attendant laws, would do more to creating healthy adults who know how to avoid alcoholism than any amount of severe drinking restrictions.

  3. The Germans have this one right – beer at 16, spirits at 18. And a very health way of treating beer as part of normal life, rather than some great evil. It appears to generate a well rounded approach to drinking.

  4. Since the screaming mimis will never let the legal age be dropped back to 16/18 in the US (as it should be, as I agree 100% with #2 above), it would be nice to think that the good professor’s idea would work.

    But requiring coursework and a high school diploma pretty much sinks it before it ever leaves the dock.

  5. My mom actually advocated something along these lines, although on a personal scale. The summer before I went to college, she had a talk with me, and recommended that I learn how to drink so that I would know my limit. I didn’t end up following her advice because I had no interest in drinking, but I can see the wisdom in it.

  6. One of my wisest friends told me once: “Religion should be taught only to consent adults (18+”. So my opinion on the matter is the same.
    But the German solution seems ok to me, soft drinks at 16 and spirits at 18.

  7. The legal drinking age has never stopped kids from drinking (it didn’t stop me). People like doing things they’re not allowed to do. I think we make it too much of special thing in the US, and I feel that ultimately leads to a lot more dangerous situations. If we had a lower drinking age, that would allow kids to get over the fact that they can drink and I feel they would start to approach drinking in a more well rounded way much sooner than they are now.

    There’s also always the argument that the rate of drunk driving fatalities diminishes with the higher legal drinking age, but people are irresponsible at every age and I feel that argument is sort of stereotyping. But what do I know, I’m just a boring 20 year old who apparently isn’t binge drinking nearly enough (that’s all us young’uns do, you know).

  8. My sister and I have been allowed to drink since we were children. Children. I had my first rum and coke when I was six. My sister can drink whatever she wants, whenever she wants and my parents will get it for her and do it with her. They weren’t new age hippies either just negligent Hispanic parents.

    When I was about twenty five and my sister was eighteen we were at a party with my girlfriend and her sister who was also eighteen. My girlfriend’s sister was knocking people over trying to get her hands on alcohol. My girlfriend had a drinking problem too and would always drink until she passed out or caused a big scene.

    Anyway, her sister tried to get my sister excited about the fact that there was alcohol and all my sister said was, “meh.” It was at that moment I realized I didn’t have to worry about my sister going out to a bar and getting smashed and doing something stupid. I don’t drink at all anymore and my sister only drinks during the holidays.

  9. The Germans do have this right with staggering beer, wine with spirits, but you can only get your drivers license at *18* so the two years when you are starting to drink, you have no real access to a car. I think that factor makes a big difference as by the time you can drive, you know what alc can do to you. Also, spirits are much more expensive in Germany, thus limiting their appeal.
    Germany has had its share of problems recently with ‘flat rate’ drinking bars and alco-pops drinks that taste like sugar so you don’t know how much you are drinking.
    Beer, on the other hand, fills you up and that is a natural way to curb your nightly intake. Mmmmm Beer.
    Btw, Prof. McCardell is a class act and thoughtful person. The Atlantic piece is way too short. Check out their web site for more information on the proposal behind Prof. McCardell’s piece.

  10. One big difference between the USA and many other countries: the USA has a minimum drinking age, but many other countries just have a minimum purchase age. Some also restrict where people below the purchase age can drink (e.g. not in bars, or in restaurants but only with a meal).

  11. I did’t drink until I was 21, because it was illegal, and I’m law abiding.

    I could agree with it being reduced to 18 though

  12. What I think is really interesting about McCardle’s point of view is that he was president of Middlebury during a time when the rules on drinking became much more restrictive. This was cased by the state of Vermont threatening to take away the college’s liquor license and not, I believe, due to the administration’s initiative. The new policy was implemented a couple of weeks into my freshman year and I immediately saw drinking turn from a social activity to a clandestine one. Plus, cases of Natty Light were replaced with handles of 151 because they were easier to conceal.

  13. Maybe Middlebury is just gunning to get the coveted “Number One Party School” designation from Playboy Magazine.

  14. Americans have no self-discipline. By and large, college age children are not responsible enough to both drink and leave their home. If the country was serious about ending under age drinking it would treat it seriously. Expel intoxicated students. Too many kids are going to college anyway.

  15. There’s also the different living arrangements between, say, the UK and the USA…maybe Canada falls somewhere in between? It strikes me that in the UK the local pub (short for public house, after all) is a neighborhood institution. Everyone knows one another, and the barman will cut you off if you’re being obnoxious. British Pubs open for lunch, close in the afternoon, reopen in the evening, and close down around 11pm. You can easily walk there from where you live and easily walk (or slightly stagger) home.
    It seems there is casual social pressure in the UK to keep one’s consumption of alcohol moderated.
    (Of course, in major metro areas like London this breaks down and the rules of the game are different)

    In the USA, the typical bar is hard to reach by any means other than driving; few people live within easy walking distance of their favorite watering holes; good luck taking a bus there; even if you can take the bus there, you probably can’t take it back and will have to call a cab.
    Having a designated driver is fine if you’re with a group, but if you’re alone…American bars also are just more anonymous, seedy, etc, than British pubs. (I wouldn’t know about Canada).

    The decreased wrecks with higher drinking age wouldn’t matter if the USA had more walkable communities where driving to the neighborhood bar was totally unnecessary. Unfortunately with zoning laws, the neighborhood bar in the USA has all but vanished as an institution; practically non-existent in suburbia, in fact. It persists in a few cities, here and there, and in some college towns…Walkable communities and/or reliable public transport could serve to reduce the number of drunk driving fatalities in the USA.

    I’m inclined to agree that the German system sounds best to me. Voting is allowed at 18, as is military service. Drinking alcohol, and for that matter being able to buy/own/carry concealed a handgun (preferably 2 freedoms not exercised at the same time) should be allowed at 18, too.

  16. Thank you for mentioning the very relevant topic of walkable communities.
    This is often overlooked in the discussion about drinking and drinking age laws. In many parts of the U.S., teenagers are immobile unless someone in their group has a car. There is nothing within walking distance, so kids are careening around the roads at 11pm, screeching tires. And these are the sober ones.
    I can’t drive too blocks without seeing an “anti teenage drinking/driving” billboard. Usually, they’ll show the graduation photo of a nicelooking teenager and friends, next to a photo of a wrecked car, and a slogan like “they didn’t see THAT coming – don’t drink and drive” or “Be smart, use your head, don’t drink and drive” etc, which seems to be mocking the victims (at least that’s my reaction)
    Bring back the trolleys. The kids can go on a date, see a movie and return home safely, without risking life and limb.

  17. A large amount of the argument against teenagers drinking has to do with drunk driving.

    Remember, in Germany, the minimum driving age is *18* even though you can start drinking beer at 16.

    Essentially they are tackling the problem in reverse. Let people learn to drink before driving vs. driving then learning to drink.

    So would you all mind if the minimum driving age in the US was 18 or even 21?

  18. For years, I’ve been advocating licensing for drugs and alcohol.

    There are a number of things that are dangerous to self and/or other that we let people do if they study and register. Driving is the one that almost everybody does. In many places, guns and explosives are handled the same way.

    I think there could be a lot of benefit if we handled controlled substances the same way. I definitely know responsible drinkers and drug users, and I don’t think they’d be hampered.

    A big plus would be that cops would no longer need to choose between arresting somebody who’s gottn too drunk or high and letting them go. Instead, they could ticket them and put points on their license. I have known people who definitely would have benefited from a short suspension of their drinking license.

  19. The biggest problem: telling people “no” doesn’t work, and telling them “not til you’re older” REALLY doesn’t work.

  20. It’s absurd that at 18 your old enough to drive a tank, and do just about all other adult things except run for President — but you can’t have a drink legally. College kids not allowed to drink? Stupid.

    However — what people have breezily mentioned in passing is true. The lowering absolutely did save lives. I’m not up to to google-grabbing all the stats right now, but I saw them once upon a time. They were pretty hardcore. Not unlike when they dropped the speed limits. Boom, instant drop in fatalities. Now, I get it — we should address the problem, not the results, etc. But people don’t work that way. They pick the simplest solution that actually shows results.

  21. #10: While I’m in theoretical favor of raising the driving age, it’s unfortunately totally impractical in North America.

    Too many rural and sub-urban communities have been planned and built around the car – rural youth are especially isolated if cut off from driving, but even in suburbia, most of the places kids go for entertainment or after-school activities require driving to get to, and bus/subway service in suburbia is often insufficient and is often downright missing (as it is in rural areas).

    If kids and teens can’t get to the places that welcome them and offer them interesting activities, they entertain themselves.

    This sounds positive, until you realize that all-too-often these “entertaining themselves” means drinking, taking drugs, and “getting up to trouble” in an aimless sort of way. Roleplaying gamers and videogamers are exempted, we just get fat and unfit instead ;)

    If we were like a western European nation, and densely populated and planned around foot traffic and public transit, this wouldn’t be a barrier. But we aren’t.

  22. @ Jerril #14:

    Not to mention that it would pretty much destroy the pizza delivery industry.

  23. An alcohol education course in high schools which would license people to drink?

    Am I the only one here cynical enough to imagine that the alcohol lobby would happily jump on board to provide free (or value-added) curriculum for such courses?

    I can’t imagine this happening without the curriculum becoming tainted by industry interests, especially in states like Texas where school curriculum is determined at the state level, and is already very politicized.

  24. In my mind The State has no moral power to control what an adult may or not put into their body, unless doing so somehow harms another.

    An 18 year old can be sued.
    An 18 year old can marry.
    An 18 year old can enter a contract.
    An 18 year old can be drafted to wage war.
    Why can’t an 18 year old drink alcohol, so long as they do so in a way that is not likely to harm another?

    I REALLY dislike the idea of government licensing the ability to exercise rights. Oh, and arresting and attempting to CAGE parents who give a child a glass of wine at Thanksgiving dinner- those bloody prosecutors ought to be tarred and feathered.

    ps. I lived for 9 months in the Dominican Republic. For practical purposes, any child could buy beer if they were old enough to reach the counter. They often did so for their parents, running to the corner to store and having it added to the parent’s tab…. No hey problema! Occasionally teenagers drank, just as responsibly as the adults, and often they worked a hard day’s worth of labor before their beer- so no one was going to tell them they weren’t responsible enough to have a beer. Under D.R. law this was illegal, but not enforced and the general perception was that the drinking law was only there to please the USA, providers of foreign aid with often attached strings.

  25. The French system is excellent.
    If in the first year after you have passed your driving test you are tested and found to have ANY alcohol in your blood then you must retake your test. In France that is expensive as there are a number of mandatory paid classes needed in order to qualify. I know a bunch of kids who don’t drink at all in that critical year

  26. Damn Puritans. Children have been drinking right along with breast milk for THOUSANDS of years. It was part of the daily meal. Beer, bread, cheese, meat ( if you were lucky) and dried odds and ends.

    We need to quit acting like we are the first generation of Humans to inhabit this damn planet.

    My children will be allowed to drink a good ale or beer, watered down, as per the French with wine.

    Hell, my mother gave me a thimble of whiskey to help me sleep when I was little.

    Take religion out of anything, and common sense will prevail.

    This professor should start a class on the folly’s of prohibition, and cover it all.

    Bring back the state hoods. If you don’t want your 18 year old to drink a beer, move back to Utah.

    Don’t like weed? Get out Of California, Washington, New Mexico, New Hampshire. etc etc.

    Let the mind of the people prevail, we are 300 million, they are by 500 hundred empty souls mastering us?

    its time to take back our Republic.

  27. Yeah I had a drinking problem, then when I turned 21 it was no big deal to get drunk anymore. It lost its excitement for me. I still will have a drink on occasion or going out with friends but I have made a few bad errors to to my drunkeness. I wonder if the legal age in the US would have been 18 if I would have gotten over drinking three years earlier. I can only imagine how my life would have turned out…

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