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Radical Recommendations by a Former College President

In today’s Time’s there’s an Op-Ed from John M. McCardell Jr., former President of Middlebury College in Vermont. The piece is titled “What Your College President Didn’t Tell You,” and includes a few very non-traditional reccomendations for making colleges better. While all make sense in one way or another, the one that really jumped out at me was this:

To lawmakers: the 21-year-old drinking age is bad social policy and terrible law. It is astonishing that college students have thus far acquiesced in so egregious an abridgment of the age of majority. Unfortunately, this acquiescence has taken the form of binge drinking. Campuses have become, depending on the enthusiasm of local law enforcement, either arms of the law or havens from the law.

Neither state is desirable. State legislators, many of whom will admit the law is bad, are held hostage by the denial of federal highway funds if they reduce the drinking age. Our latter-day prohibitionists have driven drinking behind closed doors and underground. This is the hard lesson of prohibition that each generation must relearn. No college president will say that drinking has become less of a problem in the years since the age was raised. Would we expect a student who has been denied access to oil paint to graduate with an ability to paint a portrait in oil? Colleges should be given the chance to educate students, who in all other respects are adults, in the appropriate use of alcohol, within campus boundaries and out in the open.

And please – hold your fire about drunken driving. I am a charter member of Presidents Against Drunk Driving. This has nothing to do with drunken driving. If it did, we’d raise the driving age to 21. That would surely solve the problem.

This is surely not a very popular position to take and I think it’s interesting that McCardell was even willing to print this (even in ultra-liberal Vermont, I don’t know how popular this idea is). What he’s saying makes sense, though. Every argument against the drinking age has been heard, so I won’t go through them. But there is little doubt that a drinking age of 21 has been ineffective in keeping those underage from obtaining and drinking alcohol. Why not end this fight and lower the age? Maybe they can even start teaching kids about being safe with alcohol, rather than taking the abstinence approach that has worked so well for educating children about sex.

September 13, 2004