Academic journal article Policy Review

The Drinking Game

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Drinking Game

Article excerpt

IT WAS 3:00 a.m. and someone was trying to kick down my door. I wasn't surprised. In my college town--and college towns across America--this sort of thing happens from time to time. Students get trashed, forget where they live, and try to break in someplace to sleep it off. I rolled out of bed, asked my wife to call the police, and then went downstairs. I opened the door and there he stood, just as expected: a very drunk student.

"Dude, who are you?"

"I'm Professor Poe and the police are on the way."

"But hey, where's John?"

"I don't know, but you should leave."

"Dude, can I sleep here?"


He stumbled off, the police came, and it was over. Well, not quite. When drunk students do really dumb things in my college town we all know exactly what to do. Everyone plays their part: I wrote angry letters to local papers decrying college drinking; the city council expressed outrage; the provost said a commission was studying the problem; the students proclaimed their "right to party." Then nothing happened. The students went on drinking as before and we all waited for the next incident.

Welcome to The College Drinking Game--the futile, half-hearted, endless American battle against undergraduate boozing. The rules are simple: If you are a student, you must drink excessively and proclaim your God-given "right" to do so; if you are a politician, college president, alcohol expert, or college-town resident, you must talk excessively about excessive college drinking. Peculiarly, you do not play this game to win; rather, your object is to keep the game going, round after round, until everyone has had too much drinking and talking to go on. At present, the game shows no sign of ending.

This is the story of The College Drinking Game--how it got started, how it has been played, and how we might end it by seeing college drinking in a different light. College drinking per se is not the problem. On the contrary, rowdy drinking serves an important identity- and community-building role in American higher education. The problem, rather, is the small minority of college drinkers who cannot drink safely. They should be the focus of treatment and, if necessary, punishment.

  A University of Iowa student lost fingers and toes to frostbite after
  passing out in an alley for six hours during his walk home from
  downtown Iowa City bars early Sunday [February 10, 2008] amidst
  subzero temperatures, police say. The man, whom police would not
  identify because there is not a criminal complaint, reportedly had to
  have some fingers and toes amputated, Iowa City Police Sgt. Troy
  Kelsay said.

AMERICANS HAVE BEEN wrestling with college drinking for so long that they've forgotten there was a time when they didn't. Prior to World War II there were a number of "crises" on American campuses--loutish behavior at football games, the introduction of the research-heavy "German Method," the corruption of coeds--but excessive college drinking was not among them. As one turn-of-the-century commentator put it, drinking was simply a "conventional college sin," an innocent excess afforded to a small class of youth from better families. The fact that collegians routinely got plastered just wasn't news. When it was, it was treated lightly. In 1894, the New York Times reported that Hugh Claibourne Adams, a Princetonian, was arrested for public intoxication after the Princeton-Yale game. A judge told Adams that he had "disgraced [his] college." Adams didn't think so: "No, no, Judge, not that. We college men will have our fling at times. It is expected of us." You can almost hear the laughter in Adams's eating club. Occasionally the colleges mounted half-hearted temperance campaigns: Princeton did in 1898, as did Stanford in 1908. They faded as rapidly as they appeared. The coming of Prohibition in 1919 changed nothing. Most agreed that the Volstead Act had, as one expert said in 1922, "brought about a material diminution of drinking among college students. …

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