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Pondering views of the “Choose Responsibility” group of John M. McCardell, Jr.

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Former College President Calls for Lowering Drinking Age

  1. The age-21 drinking law is “bad social policy and terrible law,” forcing college students to take their alcohol use underground and promoting dishonesty among college officials about drinking culture on campus, according to former Middlebury College president John M. McCardell, Jr.

Inside Higher Education reported Feb. 16 that McCardell has created a nonprofit group, Choose Responsibility, dedicated to exploring alternatives to the age-21 law, including the option of issuing drinking licenses to 18- to 20-year-olds who complete an alcohol-education program. The nonprofit is being underwritten by a $200,000 grant from the Robertson Foundation.

McCardell said that college officials who think that they have campus drinking under control are “delusional,” adding that most officials are politically restrained from being honest about student drinking. He said his research shows that the age-21 law has had little positive impact on student drinking, adding that trends such as declining DWI rates could just as easily be attributed to other factors. “This is by definition a very emotional issue, but what we need is an informed and dispassionate debate,” McCardell said.

McCardell said the current law makes it hard for parents and schools to teach about responsible drinking. “You either become an arm of the law, which you are not about, or a haven from the law, which poses a fundamental ethical dilemma,” he said.

College alcohol researcher Henry Wechsler of the Harvard School of Public Health said lowering the drinking age would be a “poor idea.”

“Nineteen-year-olds do not have two beers. When they drink, they drink a lot,” he said. “What happens to 16- and 17-year-olds. Should they also be legal?”

The head of the Bacchus Network, Drew Hunter, also said he supports the age-21 law. But Michael P. Haines, director of the National Social Norms Research Center, said that many Americans who oppose drinking by middle- and high-school students would have a different opinion about a 19- or 20-year-old who is married, working full-time, or serving in the military.

“I think the 21-year-old drinking age is a disastrous failure,” he said. “Many colleges are worried that if they talk about alcohol with their freshmen, they will be charged with condoning underage drinking.”

“This is not about giving more beer to young people,” said McCardell. “This is about opening our eyes to the social reality around us.”

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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