Point of View
The Case Against 21: A Report from the Front Lines
By Barrett Seaman '67
A journalist by training, I was never one to take up causes, except of course to chronicle the words and actions of their proponents and opponents as they did battle in the marketplace of ideas. Not that I don't have opinions — especially on matters of public policy. But I am more comfortable in an observant, versus an activist, role.
So I am somewhat surprised these days to find myself firmly and publicly committed to a cause: the reformation of our nation's drinking age laws, with the goal of curbing what I have come to see as an alarming culture of dangerous drinking among America's younger citizens, in particular those who attend residential colleges like Hamilton.
I have come to believe that the establishment 25 years ago of a national Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) of 21 not only has failed to reduce drinking among young people, as its proponents expected it would; it has in fact exacerbated the problem in three ways: It has created an aura of "the forbidden fruit" around alcohol, making it a bigger deal than it need be; it has given parents a false sense of security that the law — not their guidance — is going to stop their children from drinking; and most of all, it has separated parents, professors and other mature adults from otherwise legally recognized young adults at a critical point in their maturation when they are most likely to experiment with alcohol, thereby squandering adults' best opportunity to demonstrate and teach moderation.
Like many in my generation and, frankly, anyone over 21 at the time, the passage of the MLDA in 1984 was an event that didn't affect me. I was covering the White House for Time magazine when Ronald Reagan signed the new age limit into law, but I didn't bother to think seriously about whether this was a good idea or not. It wasn't until my own daughters started to turn 18 that I had to deal with the age-old parental quandary of whether we should allow them a glass of wine or a beer at home or say yes to their requests that their friends be allowed to drink beer in our home, if they promised not to drive. When they went off to college, I hadn't the slightest doubt that they would drink there — but I also hadn't stopped to consider that, unlike me at Hamilton in the '60s, they would be breaking the law in doing so.
Throughout the '90s, both through my daughters' experiences in college and my own as a Hamilton trustee, I began to see that contemporary college drinking behavior was different from mine — not just in degree but in kind. Mind you, I was in DKE, a fraternity that prided itself on the number of kegs we knocked off on houseparty weekends; we openly celebrated the mythical stories about the drinking prowess of brothers past and present. Yet what I was seeing in current campus drinking behavior was a level of intensity that bordered on the obsessive. And what I heard from administrators was that today's students drink to get drunk — not in the course of a social event, but before social events even get under way, in a ritual every student has recognized since about, oh, 1988 (when MLDA went into full effect nationwide). "Pre-gaming" means sitting in a dorm room or off-campus apartment doing shots of hard liquor to guarantee at least a good buzz before going to events where alcohol will be harder to get.
In researching my book Binge: Campus Life in an Age of Disconnection and Excess (John Wiley & Sons, 2005), about the modern residential college experience, I encountered the same attitudes toward alcohol in the context of the same essential student culture, whether I was at Harvard or Hamilton, Wisconsin or Pomona. The only student culture I observed that did not exhibit these characteristics was at McGill University in Montreal, where roughly 2,000 Americans are enrolled as undergraduates in any given year — and where the legal drinking age is 18.
Just about the time I was completing my work on Binge, Dr. John McCardell was preparing to step down as president of Middlebury College, one of our NESCAC peers and one of the 12 campuses I covered for my book. As a college president, John had reached the same conclusion I had: that MLDA 21 was, as he wrote in a 2004 New York Times op-ed piece, "bad social policy and terrible law." The reaction to John's piece — an onslaught of letters and e-mails, the vast majority of them in agreement — inspired him in his new emeritus status to try to do something about it.
In December 2006, Dr. McCardell, a lawyer named Bill Goodell (who represented the Robertson Foundation, founded by Julian Robertson of Tiger Fund fame, our principal financial backer at the time) and I officially launched Choose Responsibility (www.chooseresponsibility.org). We were its first directors. The staff then consisted of two freshly minted Middlebury graduates. The organization has since grown to comprise a full-time Washington office with four full-time staffers. Our board of directors has tripled in size, and our fundraising efforts are paying off, though we could always use your help.
Our goal was to topple what conventional wisdom seemed to have accepted as nationally entrenched policy, ardently defended by a network of powerful supporters, from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to the entire insurance industry. Over the course of three years now, we have made speeches, participated in debates and been interviewed on occasions easily numbering into the hundreds. John has appeared on 60 Minutes and The Colbert Report. My big hit was on The Dr. Phil Show, an experience unto itself.
In the beginning, defenders of MLDA 21 regarded us as pesky iconoclasts they could dispatch merely by labeling us as dangerous and misguided. When that didn't work, MADD tried to ignore us. Indeed to this day, MADD will not participate in direct debates with us — though we have reached out to them to cooperate on what we see as substantial common ground in toughening drunk driving laws and promoting designated drivers. Nonetheless it seems, as long as we are against MLDA 21, they are against us.
MADD's irritation with us intensified in the summer of 2008, when we revealed that more than 130 sitting college presidents around the country had signed something called The Amethyst Initiative — a document averring that current drinking age policies are not working and that Americans should seek out a better approach. Amethyst (the reference is to an ancient Greek belief that the stone is an antidote to intoxication) does not specifically advocate lowering the age to 18, but it is clear in pronouncing current policies as ineffective. Among its signatories: the presidents of Colgate, Dartmouth, Duke, Ohio State and our own Joan Hinde Stewart.
MADD's reaction to Amethyst was to warn parents of prospective college students that they should think twice before sending a child off to an institution whose leader supports "underage" drinking. But the reaction of hundreds of colleges across the U.S. — many of whose leaders had not yet signed onto Amethyst — was to schedule dispassionate debates on the drinking age issue. This fall, I am scheduled to represent our side on six campuses.
I go into these debates with confidence — in part because of my Hamilton public speaking training, but in larger part because I am comfortable with the facts and with our overall position. The other side almost invariably trots out the same statistics supporting their claim that MLDA 21 has reduced drunk-driving fatalities by some 13 percent, allegedly saving nearly 1,000 lives a year on the nation's roads. When I hear that claim, I sometimes feel like Alex Rodriguez must when facing a 3-0 pitch: I know I can knock that one right out of the park with the simple observation — backed by peer-reviewed studies — that Canada, during roughly the same period, had an even greater reduction in drunk driving deaths without changing any of its provinces' 18- or 19-year-old drinking age limits. But don't get me going.
Some say that we will never win this battle, because our argument is too complicated for politicians to reduce to a credible "sound bite" that won't draw the ire of our powerful opponents. I believe that the ground is shifting, however, as the logic of our position sinks in among voters and provides increasing support for public officials to question current law openly. We are working with more than half a dozen states to develop proposals that add up to a sensible approach to drinking age laws — some form of licensing, lots more education about the risks associated with alcohol and tougher drunk driving laws for all age cohorts. As I often say in debates, if all we do is lower the drinking age, we won't solve the problem; but until we lower the drinking age, we will never solve it.
A. Barrett Seaman '67 is a director of Choose Responsibility and the author of Binge: Campus Life in an Age of Disconnection and Excess. A charter trustee of the College, he retired in 2001 from Time magazine, where he covered the White House and served as special projects editor.