The Amethyst Initiative takes on the drinking age

I attended Trinity College, in Hartford, Connecticut, and just read a very interesting article about the school’s president in the Hartford Courant.

I have always felt that laws that are widely ignored are corrosive to society. The universally ignored speed limit laws, and the contrary, quixotic ways in which they are sporadically enforced, with revenue being a higher goal than safety, are a perfect case in point. Drinking laws in this country are another. Even though the Federal government does not directly set states’ drinking ages, they have used the ability to withhold funds to ensure the 21-year  old drinking age across the country. (See the Wikipedia summary of the 1984 law here.) Nearly everyone admires the idea behind legislation designed to protect people, but our society has become far too confused about learning what behaviors can and cannot be regulated by law. Years ago, after a New York Thruway car failure in a New Baltimore, NY rest area, a friend and I questioned the AAA flatbed driver’s plan to have us sit in the car while it was strapped to the bed of his truck. Our question: Is this safe? His reply: It’s legal. That says volumes about the backwards way this country has come to view the role of law in daily life.

Back to drinking… Even though the 1984 law was only five years old when I started at Trinity, it was plain to see then that the law would have no impact on drinking, other than to drive it somewhat underground. It became clear to me that if people grew up with no examples of how to consume alcohol responsibly, it is simply madness to expect them to figure out how to do so without veering around pretty wildly. I can think of any number of incidents that really scared me as I watched people get themselves in trouble with alcohol, in ways that are now termed binge drinking.

So back to my headline. It seems last month a group of over 100 college presidents formed and they have decided to walk on the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (their last appearance on this blog, prudishly clucking, here) third rail and advocate lowering the drinking age back to eighteen. The Courant ran the story because Trinity’s Jones has now joined the Amethsyt Initiative.

I love news stories that suggest there is some common sense left in this world. Rather than paraphrase, I will cite a portion of the article:

“The fact that kids can’t drink until they’re 21 legally simply forces them to do it clandestinely, and when they do, you get irresponsible behavior…” [Jones said.] … Jones also has trouble with the disconnect in the message the government is sending 18­year-olds, who can vote, serve on a jury, sign a contract, and serve in the military – but not drink. “If we’re going to send someone to fight in Iraq, I don’t understand why that is an adult prerogative but buying a beer legally is not.’”

From the Initiative’s website, they note that their call to action:

does not, by design, prescribe a particular policy change. It does, however, state clearly the signatories’ belief that 21 is not working as well as the public may think, that its unintended consequences are posing increasing risks to young people, and that it is time for a serious debate among our elected representatives about whether current public policies are in line with current realities.

Bravo to the Amethyst Initiative for engaging in this debate. I wish them every success that people will hear them out and not simply dismiss them as favoring youthful alcoholism. Bravo to President Jones, too, for his courage in joing this group and speaking out.

I will follow this group’s progress with great interest.

[A Trinity aside: When I was there, we had a new president named Tom Gerety, who followed a Trinity graduate, James English after an eight-year stint as president. Mr. Gerety was all smiles and charisma, and as freshmen we loved him. I realize that a college president’s main constituency is not the students, but Gerety soon grated on the students, the board, the alumni, and the faculty. His insistence on Tom rather than Thomas mirrored the faux populism of William Clinton and James Carter. His constant harping about Hartford’s great qualities while he refused to live in the president’s house on campus spoke volumes. His bluster and contempt about many student organizations all grated on a lot of people. He joined the search committee for Amherst College, and was shocked, shocked when Amherst asked him to take the position as their president. The Trinity board’s reply was along the lines of ‘don’t let the door hit you on the way out.’ After Gerety left (for nine years at Amherst and then the Brennan Center for Justice in New York), poor ol’ Trinity next hired Evan Dobelle as president. He was ambitious and worked hard with the local community, but also antagonized nearly everyone. (After he left Trinity, he served as president of the University of Hawaii for three years until the Regents there canned him for wild and inappropriate spending sprees. After a settlement, the Regents “unfired” him and he resigned. He’s now president of Westfield State College in Massachusetts.) Dobelle was followed by Richard Hersh, who lasted for about two years before a revolt of the students and a faculty vote of no confidence led to his resignation in 2003. The Tripod handles that story here. Throughout these ups and down Trinity relied on Borden Painter (twice) and Ron Thomas to serve as acting presidents and keep the ship afloat. I did not know President Thomas, but as a History major, Prof. Painter was our department chair and I knew him to be a dedicated scholar and a patient teacher, with an adept touch with his students. As great as Painter is, the college needed an actual president and so it was with much anticipation that the school welcomed James Jones as president after that string of turkeys (Thomas and Painter clearly excepted). Jones has now been there four years, and while I view Trinity from afar and have by no means any particular sources, he appears to be a much better fit. I hope so. Trinity’s a real gem, with some real problems, and it deserves to have strong custodians nurturing its growth. End of my aside.]


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