Work Hard, Play Harder

The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Work Hard, Play Harder


THE RULES OF THE COLLEGE Drinking Game are simple: Students must drink excessively, and politicians, college presidents, and public health specialists must rail excessively about the excessive drinking. They're missing the mark, says historian Marshall Poe. "College drinking per se is not the problem," he argues.

Not the problem? That may come as a surprise to many, but Poe argues that the effect of alcohol on campus is "largely positive." American higher education is the envy of the world, and one of the reasons for that is that colleges and universities have done something very difficult: create strong communities and a sense of identity. From his perch at the University of Iowa, Poe has observed that for most students, "rowdy drinking is considered essential to becoming a Hawkeye." Social events such as house parties, pregame tailgating, and Greek life build cohesion, and all run on the fuel of alcohol.

College life wasn't always this way. Until the 1970s, the drinking age in almost every state was 21--and the college population was relatively small. But when thousands of young American men went off to fight in Vietnam, many at home argued that if they were old enough to die for their country, they should be old enough to drink. (The draft age had been lowered from 21 to 18 in World War II, but few argued then that the drinking age should follow.) By 1975, only 11 states still had a drinking age of 21, and alcohol began its starring role in the life of the American college student. …

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