Learning to drink in America


Friday, February 23
Out of nowhere, it seems, the issue of whether a legal drinking age of 18 is fair and/or effective in reducing problem drinking has been raised, and as in the past, emotional responses were quick to follow.

Former Middlebury College President John McCardell said recently that he will work with a new group, Choose Responsibility, to promote lowering the age from 21 to 18 in Vermont for those who have passed an alcohol education course.

The current age, Mr. McCardell argues, has failed to stop young people from acquiring alcoholic beverages and drinking to excess. In fact, he says, having to hide their drinking amid endless crackdowns by the authorities only encourages binge drinking by the young, as opposed to responsible consumption.

Wesley Knapp, the superintendent of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, took the opposite view this week in a column on these pages. He contends that problems with young people drinking today pale in comparison to those of the 1970s when the legal age was 18 in Vermont and other states — and the number of fatal, alcohol-related crashes involving teens was greater than today.

In addition, Mr. Knapp argues that the idea that lowering the drinking age will reduce alcohol abuse is "nonsense," even if young people were required to pass an education course.

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Mr. Knapp also dismisses the argument that 18-year-olds can serve in the military and therefore should be allowed to drink. We would say the discrepancy sounds like a violation of civil rights and the height of hypocrisy.

While we aren't convinced that Mr. McCardell's idea of an education course would be enough to curb alcohol abuse among the young, we think he is on the right track. He is at least recognizing the absurdity of people between the ages of 18 and 21 not being allowed to drink legally. These are not children anymore; they are adults.

This issue also goes to how we, as a society, encourage people to act responsibly. Clearly, telling them to "just say no," which is a conservative Republican mantra that has been through all sorts of permutations in multiple contexts since the 1980s, and then having police and other authority figures continually "lay down the law," has failed more often than it has succeeded.

That's because ultimately, when those simplistic and repressive controls are finally lifted, there are no internal controls left to take over. And for young people, most controls are effectively exploded — at least on occasion — by the time they reach the eighth grade.

As a society, we somehow have to allow teens to drink, if they wish, in supervised, controlled venues — and we have to educate them — before they are allowed into bars and package stores. We can't just hide the booze away and hope they wait until they are 21. Unfortunately, that's what we are doing today.


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