5th 2010
“Party U.” and the impoverished undergraduate vision of adulthood

Posted under: American history, childhood, class, students, unhappy endings

This American Life recently had an episode recorded in State College, Pennsylvania–the home of Penn State University–on drinking, sports, and undergraduate culture (h/t to reader and commenter Fratguy.)  It’s worth a listen, especially for those of you (like me) who teach at big aggies or state unis and sometimes wonder what percentage of our students’ brains are occupied by academics.  Warning:  don’t listen if you’re looking for good news!

I was particularly interested in the opening story, in which Ira Glass stays up late to see what happens in perfectly nice neighborhoods in college towns because of pathological student drinking.  In my former Ohio small town, which hosted a prestigious public university, I lived in a neighborhood in which we might find beer bottles smashed into the sidewalk, piles of puke in our gardens, and/or have our front porch furniture stolen.  I really identified with Glass’s producer, who was running around trying to get the drunken students’ attention, and reminding them that “people live here!”  Of course, she was ignored (and even threatened).

But if sober undergraduate students are given to solipsism and narcissism, drunken undergraduates behave as if they’re truly the only people in the world, and as if their “right” to public inebriation, vandalism, and violence supersedes all other rights.  Unless you’ve tried living in a college town as an adult, it’s sometimes difficult to grasp the self-centeredness of these students, drunk or sober.  Once on a morning after, I assisted a young woman whose car window had been bashed in–not because anyone was trying to steal her car.  It was just random, drunken vandalism.  I felt sorry for her trouble, gave her our home phone so that she could call her parents, and offered her a broom and dustpan so that she could get the glass out of her car.  Instead of sweeping up the glass, she just brushed it out of her car and onto the street and tree lawn so that I had to pick it up later, piece by piece.  Most of our neighbors had stories of drunken students who tried to enter their homes–or who successfully entered their homes, and fell asleep on their couches or beds, sometimes after having peed in a corner of a room that didn’t have a toilet in it.  (I like Glass’s description of this as an everyday crime that’s difficult to define or explain to people who don’t live in college towns.)  When adult residents complain, the typical student retort is, “well, you knew what kind of a neighborhood this was when you bought your house.” 

One aspect of undergraduate drinking I’ve heard from college students, and which is noted in this This American Life recording, is the belief that college is the last party they’ll ever attend, so if they don’t make maximum use of their college years to engage in drunken vandalism and a$$hattery, they’ll have squandered something precious.  I understand the feeling that college is a special time in life–it most certainly is.  What’s more disturbing is the impoverished vision of adulthood this belief implies.  Instead of seeing graduation from college as an exciting beginning of their lives as free adults who can explore the world, establish themselves in their chosen fields, and/or engage in creative projects, it’s just the first blow of the work whistle they’ll be waking up to for the rest of their lives.  For example:  it’s striking to me how young most of these students marry and have children.  But instead of seeing these events as joyous milestones in their own lives, they apparently see them as millstones of adult obligation they must undertake, regardless of their own wants, talents, or needs.

Why do they have such a dreary view of adulthood?  (Is it just an excuse to engage in drunken mayhem in college?)  All I wanted when I was a child and a teenager was to be older, to have more freedom and to have more responsibility for myself.  I looked forward to adulthood all my life, so I really don’t understand what’s not appealing about it.  I wish there was some way of getting our students to think about college as an introduction to how to have a full and rich adult life.  But all of that alcohol is probably permanently altering their brain chemistry and perhaps dooming them to the narrow, dull lives they imagine we adults all share.

I’m betting that many of you have stories to tell about living in college towns.  Do you think your students share this grim, joyless view of adulthood?  (By the way, I don’t live in a college town any more–although it means I have a commute, I’m really OK with that.)


57 Responses to ““Party U.” and the impoverished undergraduate vision of adulthood”

  1. Matt L on 05 Jan 2010 at 9:58 am #

    Hey Historiann, a Great post and a great series of stories on _This American Life_. I think that the TAL episode offers an example of one particular kind of college experience in America. Higher ed is pretty diverse and students are self selecting in terms of what kind of ‘college experience’ they end up buying.

    For my own undergrad experience, I really wanted to go to Reed College, the school with no grades and a heavy dose of liberal arts learning. I ended up going to UC Santa Cruz, which was bigger, had a similar hippy mentality towards grades (back in the day), but was still driven by a liberal arts attitude towards education (again, back in the day). By way of comparison, a high school buddy of mine went to San Diego State, because of its Party School reputation and immediately joined a Frat that was on academic probation. He wanted the “animal house” college experience and boy did he get it. (I saw him a year later and he looked pale as a ghost and was on academic probation himself).

    I think the students who choose to go to Penn State have already decided what kind of college experience they want to have. Their vision of adulthood is pretty realistic, given the amount of debt they will graduate with and the frankly monotonous, empty headed nature of most jobs in a service economy. I can see why some people would want to go on a bender before being chained to a desk in ‘cubical-land.’

    The bummer is the Penn State student’s grim and joyless view of a college education. I saw college as a chance to explore different ideas. In college, I realized that I had some intellectual potential, even though I did not do well on standardized tests or have straight “A’s” in High School. Each class was a chance to ask “Why”? I experienced college as a liberation. The question is, why don’t our students? I think part of the answer is that the popular culture and social expectations make college out to be more “Animal House” than “Real Genius” or “Good Will Hunting.”

  2. Kate on 05 Jan 2010 at 10:00 am #

    You make some excellent points here. That college is presented to young American adults as both their first and last grasp of “freedom” is maddening and narrow-minded.

    Even more maddening is when those young adults in the student-filled apartment complex next to mine binge drink and holler unintelligibly all night long until they soil themselves – effectively returning them to the infancy they long to escape. Little darlings, all of them.

  3. Historiann on 05 Jan 2010 at 10:04 am #

    I think you’re right, Matt, about the expectations many of our students have about both college and life. My guess is that it’s largely shaped by their parents’ lives, which makes me even sadder. The TAL story makes it clear that it’s not just undergrads who tailgate and drink to excess on game days–it’s adult alumni, who are still invested in pathological alcohol consumption.

    I find it deeply depressing that many of our students have parents whose own lives are so disappointing or so empty that they promulate the concept of college as the “last party” before the life sentence to a dreary adulthood. Most of this wouldn’t go on if parents refused to support their children if they engaged in the “party” lifestyle.

  4. FrauTech on 05 Jan 2010 at 10:05 am #

    Well, this idea that your college years are the prime time to party is partially true. Once you have a job, the consequences of being hungover are a lot more real. I think it’s a Boomer legacy that college years are the years to let loose and party. If anything, punishment of most drugs is a lot more than it was back in the 60′s. Back then you could get arrested for protesting or drug use and still go on to have a successful life. I’m not sure if that’s the case anymore. One slip-up can keep you in dead end jobs forever. So I’m not surprised college kids with all the increased load of academics, increased pressure of going to the right college, and increased consequences of illicit drug use have turned to drinking and partying away their college years. The legal ramifications of their activities are not life altering and it’s difficult for them to objectively see the non-lethal ramifications.

    From personal experience, my university has very limited student life and while I’d hesitate to say drinking isn’t a problem, it’s not a problem for the whole surrounding area. Colleges can do things to limit this behavior, like not allowing sororities/fraternities to be on campus, spreading out their on campus dorms, anti-alcohol policies etc. The fact that they choose not to says something about what’s more important to administrators (warm bodies paying tuition).

  5. Historiann on 05 Jan 2010 at 10:07 am #

    Kate: soiling themselves? Awesome. My condolences to you for having students next door.

    In my Ohio college town, the ER staff told us that they diapered drunken student admissions before hooking them up to massive IVs. The hope was that the drunken a-holes would wake up and realize they were sitting in a massive wet diaper, and that this would shame them.

    I don’t think it worked, but the ER staff got a laugh out of these most annoying patients.

  6. Tom on 05 Jan 2010 at 10:12 am #

    My college town is notorious for street (or couch) fires set by students (generally white male students, BTW) on top of the drinking, puking, and less destructive vandalism you note–something over 75 street fires in Fall term, I was told by a fire marshall. To light a fire or add fuel to one that’s already burning would seem to go beyond drunken foolishness and lack of concern: here, at least, some folks seem wiling to allow their drunken shenanigans to extend into the realm of violence, destruction, and general life-endangerment all too willingly.

    Yet it’s hard to argue against the perception (clearly held by many students) that college is a liminal period before “true” adulthood begins, in which they can act out in various ways: indeed, seeing it as a liminal period suggests that they are expected and almost required to act out. Like it or not, college does function like that in a lot of ways–especially the traditional four-year college experience, although things may change as our culture shifts towards a more CC-oriented model? But I think you are right, Historiann, to note also that contemporary (college) culture does not see maturity as a goal worth pursuing, or even worth waiting for. Youth culture despises maturity (don’t trust anyone over thirty, the old slogan went), and many students have been told that college is the best time of their lives–and thus it’s all downhill from there.

  7. Matt L on 05 Jan 2010 at 10:33 am #

    I live in a college town about three blocks from campus. But at Woebegone State University, the students do all their binge drinking on Wednesday and Thursday nights. WSU is a real suitcase campus so everyone goes home on the weekend to work the jobs they have had since High School and to party with their High School friends.

    The party scene is relatively in control. The police take great pleasure in arresting drunk undergraduates and citing them for public intoxication/stupidity.

    The townies are convinced that the students and the faculty are a bunch of lazy good for nothing parasites (but funny enough the most vocal critics also want jobs as ‘professors’ on campus so they can get the tuition break for their kids). This antipathy contributes to the zealousness of the cops.

    But the WSU students, by and large, are not lazy. Most of the students I know work at least one job and many of them are paying for college out of their own pocket. They are screwed not because they party too much, but because they work too much during the school year. You can’t work full time, take a full time course-load, and expect to get an education.

  8. Historiann on 05 Jan 2010 at 10:34 am #

    Tom–ah, yes: couch fires! Here in Colorado that craze appears to have passed (one hopes.)

    At my former university, a student was killed in a housefire on a weekend night in the winter of 2001 when his drunk roommates thought that it would be funny to have a fight by throwing burning paper towels at each other. (Yeah, go ahead: reread that last sentence.) A house fire ensued, and the man who was killed was passed out from drink upstairs and couldn’t/didn’t respond to the alarms to get out.

    That’s just one of the more dramatic stories. The sexual assault of women, and the fights and physical assaults on drunkards by drunkards are more typical.

    FrauTech wrote: “Colleges can do things to limit this behavior, like not allowing sororities/fraternities to be on campus, spreading out their on campus dorms, anti-alcohol policies etc. The fact that they choose not to says something about what’s more important to administrators (warm bodies paying tuition).” I think that’s correct. It’s much easier to go along with contemporary drinking culture, especially because the parents and alumni aren’t likely to support efforts to limit it or shut it down.

  9. perpetua on 05 Jan 2010 at 10:35 am #

    I’ve lived in several college towns, although the only time I’ve experienced a break in and urination on my property was when I lived in the dorms. (I’m always careful now to live as far away from the students as humanly possible.) I think there are several trends in addition to the ones mentioned here that accounts for the partying trend. First, the increasing infantalization of teenagers in this country. Think about one hundred years ago, the types of responsibilities that teenagers had. Now we’re a wealthier, more prosperous, and lazier nation. We believe children should be indulged and showered with material objects. They are no longer being trained to act as law abiding members of a community with specific responsibilities. (Or, conversely, they are raised in households that are so strict they are never given any freedom whatsoever and have no idea what freedom is or how to handle it.) What follows is an almost outrageous amount of entitlement. Students who WORK during college instead of having their parents pay for everything generally don’t party – I mean, I’m sure they drink too much sometimes, but so does everyone in their 20s (and 30s and 40s, etc). Students who pay for themselves understand the consequences of partying out of school. So parents facilitate this type of behavior in the ways they raise their children, their expectations for their children’s behavior, and their permissiveness of poor grades/ bad behavior. I can safely say that a string of Cs and Ds on my college transcript would have quickly led to a stop payment on my check.

    The question of check loops back around to FrauTech’s observation about universities, which do absolutely nothing to curb drinking – or any other kind of unacceptable behavior. It’s obvious that they don’t care because they are profit driven machines, and badly-performing students often have parents with large checkbooks who are happy to pay for their child’s college degree. Compelling students to live on campus, enforcing the legal drinking age, etc, are expensive tasks that require effort, not something most colleges are willing to do. It’s no wonder that almost every college town has an abysmal relationship to the university it hosts. (Although the towns as well do an incredibly poor job of reinforcing the law – I don’t know if this is because they’re short staffed or they don’t care.)

    And of course there’s the fact that we have an excessively unhealthy relationship with alcohol in this culture – and maybe to all forms of pleasure/release. (I feel quite sure that excessive drinking – which we know occurs at all ages though perhaps less spectacularly – and say, excessive shopping/spending are part of the same cultural impulse.) And then there’s the issue of masculinity and the role of expectations for male behavior at play. While I know college girls drink too excess and behave badly too I think we’ve all seen that much of the worst behavior – violence and vandalism especially – stem from men.

  10. perpetua on 05 Jan 2010 at 10:36 am #

    PS A friend of mine who was an RA at a small college told me that one night she and another on duty RA had to call security to take a young man to the hospital – he was violently ill because he’d spent the night drinking a liter of his own urine. Hazing.

  11. Matt L on 05 Jan 2010 at 10:40 am #

    Oh, yeah, I think climate contributes to the lack of drunken stupidity at Woebegone State. I think we had a low of minus five yesterday evening. The old weather will last until April.

    I suspect that a more temperate or maritime climate would offer more opportunities for the students to collectively lower their IQs.

  12. life_of_a_fool on 05 Jan 2010 at 11:04 am #

    I don’t think that strictly enforcing the legal drinking age is the best way to approach the problem though. I’d be far happier with a harm reduction approach that encouraged a more healthy and responsible approach to drinking in general (and not just on college campuses). I’ve had numerous conversations with college students who have difficulty grasping the concept that one could drink alcohol for any reason other than getting drunk. One once said she couldn’t wait until she could drink “better” (i.e., more expensive) beer — she could have then if the goal was to have *a* drink instead of enough drinks to be sloppy drunk. Making it that much more forbidden (i.e., enforcing the drinking age) won’t help reduce that.

    I’m with you, Historiann, about always *wanting* to be an adult and not dreading it as these students seem to. thankfully!

  13. Bardiac on 05 Jan 2010 at 11:11 am #

    I’m not so sure that schools don’t want to limit drinking. Mine spends a lot of money trying to convince students not to binge drink.

    But it doesn’t seem very successful. Sure, they focus on getting warm bodies to pay tuition/fees, but they also want those warm bodies to live and stay enrolled for four+ years until they graduate. (And they’d love it if the warm bodies went out and earned a lot of money, and then gave some to the school.)

    How do you convince students to act like adults? I have no idea, but some manage.

    I also think that the fantasy that students in the “good old days” were more responsible is just that, a fantasy. When US colleges enrolled primarily white men from more or less elite backgrounds, they drank plenty.

  14. thefrogprincess on 05 Jan 2010 at 11:43 am #

    Two quick thoughts on this:

    Perpetua writes: (Or, conversely, they are raised in households that are so strict they are never given any freedom whatsoever and have no idea what freedom is or how to handle it.)

    This point is so crucial so I wanted to make sure it didn’t get lost in the shuffle.

    Second, one of the things that happens because college is seen as the last chance to party is that excessive drinking after college becomes a sign of a problem. It’s just not all right to be completely pissed at the office party. My evidence for this is purely anecdotal but my experience in the UK (where I don’t think university is seen as the high point of one’s life) is that binge drinking is acceptable on a scale unheard of here and is not isolated to college towns.

  15. LadyProf on 05 Jan 2010 at 11:43 am #

    And then there’s the issue of masculinity and the role of expectations for male behavior at play. While I know college girls drink too excess and behave badly too I think we’ve all seen that much of the worst behavior – violence and vandalism especially – stem from men.

    I agree, but I think perpetua has put the point too charitably. What’s going on in college towns isn’t so much “the issue of masculinity” as huge honking sexism and male privilege. Imagine if girls rather than boys were doing even one-fifth of the public puking, peeing, glass-breaking, peer-hazing, and violent attacks on strangers that we now live with. These girls would have serious criminal records, and campuses would go into lockdown.

    If the offenders were young black men rather than young white men, then we’d get another kind of less tolerant response.

  16. Widgeon on 05 Jan 2010 at 12:01 pm #

    I don’t disagree with LadyProf and Perpetua–clearly young white men make up the majority of drunken college hordes. But I would point out that the “This American Life” episode had some startling stories of young women who had similar drinking habits and narcissism gone wild. They also described college women dressing in skimpy outfits to gain access to frat parties–it reminded me of single women in the early 20thc “treating” for sexual favors that Kathy Peiss and other historians have written about. I do wonder whether closing down fraternities and sororities would be helpful. Many (again based on TAL) exist to organize the drinking culture. And campuses without those venerable institutions do seem to have less of a party atmosphere. But the tailgating alumni wouldn’t stand for it…

  17. Lucky Jane on 05 Jan 2010 at 12:11 pm #

    Thanks for starting this conversation. When I heard this episode a couple of weeks back, it struck me that the sort of devotion engendered by Penn State’s party culture was synonymous with what my uni’s administrators call “student engagement,” manifested in contributions from alumni. A fifty-something soccer mom giving a student she doesn’t know the strongest drink that student had ever had, to celebrate her twenty-first birthday, in a parking garage, was one of the most depressing things I’ve heard in awhile. But I think my administrative betters would be thrilled to have such a tableau played out on its property, and I don’t think my administrators are at all unusual. I’m intrigued by your interpretation that this relationship is predicated on the university being a space of infantilization.

    Penn State is enormous; most academics probably went to grad school with someone who teaches there. My friends on that faculty routinely marvel (wrong word: they’re incredulous) at how proudly devoted students and alumni are, in huge numbers, and with intensity rivalling my friends’ connections to their SLAC and Ivy almae matres. Their classroom experiences don’t seem extraordinary. n=2 here, though, so I may be wrong.

    Also, I like Perpetua’s observation that students who work aren’t as likely to party. I did my undergrad at what was then one of the partyingest schools in the country, but I also had to put myself through, as did my friends who did not go into academia. (I got wrathful even when professors used class sessions to show videos, so there was no way I was pissing away my minimum wages on alcohol.) Anyway, I now teach at a large public university, where a large proportion of students are putting themselves through. While our students certainly party, their antics are nothing like, say, those I encountered at my first job, a SLAC attended by scions of Ye Olde Money who didn’t get into their first choices. There was so much hand wringing and pearl clutching among the administrators, who probably most feared lawsuits arising from any harm befalling drunken, stoned Snotleigh IV.

  18. Sofia Blackthorne on 05 Jan 2010 at 12:33 pm #

    I am a college student with a commute, because I don’t want to live near the partying type of student.

    My sister goes to the same college, and we share an apartment to save money. We deliberately choose to live in non-student neighborhoods even though it takes longer to get to class. Several of our friends have moved into the same area – also fleeing the other students.

    I think one thing that contributes to obnoxious student behavior is the division between the college and the community around it. Most students don’t care about what kind of environment their actions create for non-students because they don’t expect to be around any longer than it takes to get their degrees. Unfortunately, I have no bright ideas about fixing that. I suspect that addressing the underlying selfishness might help.

  19. perpetua on 05 Jan 2010 at 1:00 pm #

    @Bardiac – my point about universities stems from the observation that universities do a remarkably shoddy job of controlling drinking on campus. Trying to convince students not to binge drink is one thing, but it is the equivalent of running “just say no” ads on tv. While I’m not really about law enforcement as the solution to society’s problems (and I think the 21 drinking age should be abolished), colleges ARE responsible for the level of partying and disruptive behavior that occurs on campus. Surely this can be controlled at least to a certain extent through campus police and a university regulatory system that works. (Particularly at smaller schools. But I’m not really talking about regulating drinking per se since I don’t really care how much someone drinks. What I think should be regulated is *behavior* – is somebeing being violent? destructive? disruptive by yelling or playing music too loud, etc?). I may be naive or old-fashioned, but I believe that *requiring* students to behave a certain way is at least a beginning to getting them to act that way. People don’t get drunk at work because if they do they get fired (at least in part and because the *culture* of work says this is unacceptable behavior). I think universities and societies collude in the idea that “college are the best years of your life and this is the time to blow off steam.” (Oy ve, were college the best years of my life I’d have jumped off a building years ago.)

  20. Rad Readr on 05 Jan 2010 at 1:17 pm #

    Lucky Jane writes, “My friends on that faculty routinely marvel (wrong word: they’re incredulous) at how proudly devoted students and alumni are, in huge numbers, and with intensity rivalling my friends’ connections to their SLAC and Ivy almae matres.”

    I did a talk at Penn State recently and was impressed by the devotion of alumni to that university. It was the generosity of donors that made my visit possible. So whatever the social life there, students graduate from that university with a commitment to supporting it.

    We need to work in higher ed against the out-of-control drinking culture on many campuses and off. But I also think we might inquire what creates the devotion to Penn State. Is something other than parties at work? A lot of public universities could use a little more devotion from their grads these days.

  21. Kathleen Lowrey on 05 Jan 2010 at 2:08 pm #

    I think all of this might have something to do with just how age-graded North American social life is: have any of you ever gone to a party or out anywhere that involved a mixed-age crowd, outside of weddings? When I did my fieldwork in Latin America, one of the things that most struck me about social life was everybody came to all the important parties: a 14 or 22 or 30 year old or 70 year old’s birthday party, for example, would equally be attended by family and friends from grandma to toddlers, everybody would take a turn on the dance floor, talk to one another, etc. Meanwhile, in North America the idea that real live grownups also might like to go to a club and dance is slightly freakish, though I do think (judging by old movies) a culture of that existed up until the 60s here and then just disappeared.

    I’m not saying Latin American young people from (say) age 18-25 don’t find ways to socialize away from the watchful eyes of old fogeys, but they know how to *both* do that *and* genuinely have sociable fun in mixed-age crowds. by the same token, “going out” doesn’t end at 25; tango clubs in BA have 22 year olds, 48 year olds, and 74 year olds on the dance floor. It all comes together to make for a less feral sort of nightlife than what one sees in North American university settings, that’s for sure. And one that I suspect is genuinely more fun: walking down the main drag of the college neighborhood here in my city on a weekend night can be a little scary; lots of girls in packs and drunk, bellowing boys. It feels a little hostile; though maybe (at 38) I’m too old to see the fun in it.

  22. Historiann on 05 Jan 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    Thanks, everyone, for all of your thoughtful comments.

    Kathleen–your comments about the age segregation of North American life are spot on, I think. College is a time when we are the most segregated from other age groups–since the only people not aged 18-25 we come into contact with are faculty and staff (working-age adults, no retirees, no babies or children, etc.) Thus, college students aren’t expected to see themselves as part of a broader community–they’re encouraged to see themselves as part of a *special community* unto themselves, where (as LadyProf notes) class, race, and gender have a great deal to do with the latitude extended (or not) to bad behavior.

    I’ve heard college students defend their bad behavior in shockingly bald terms: because they’re college students, and in their view, “doing something with their lives,” police should look the other way when they set couches on fire or beat each other up (or worse), as opposed to the kind of law enforcement they think should happen to working-class schmoes or gangbangers doing the exact same things under the exact same influence of alcohol.

    BTW, I agree with the sentiment that underage drinking itself is not the problem–as perpetua said, it’s the behavior that’s the problem. I’d be happy if they just learned to drink better, which is to say more quietly, and to keep to themselves instead of pointing their speakers outside and puking or peeing on other people’s lawns, etc. I’m not Carrie Nation–I’m an absolute libertarian when it comes to people deciding what substances they want to ingest and how they want to catch a buzz. When I lived in that college town, I used to joke that the university should start a quiet marijuana promotion campaign. After all, smokers are much mellower than drinkers, and because they’re doing something illegal, they tend to stay inside and keep their doors and windows shut. (Why is it that alcohol makes so many young men so belligerent and violent? I really, really, really prefer the potheads, if only for public safety reasons alone.)

  23. Indyanna on 05 Jan 2010 at 3:54 pm #

    But drinking *is* behavior, and the behaviors that follow from it are pretty much metabolically connected to the initial decision to do it. To be sure, there are quiet drunks and noisy ones, but probably many more of the latter, and in any case, the control factor pretty much slips away in both cases. Why students (or anyone) drink for the explicit *purpose* of getting snitfaced is beyond me, but probably connected in some way to the wide distribution in that age bracket (if not universally) of shyness, insecurity, and other forms of neediness for something in a glass. Kathleen Lowrey’s observations about age-stratification, backed up by some actual fieldwork, are fascinating, but not sure how they could be connected to interventions or policy changes.

    I went to college in Historiann’s home state, but about when she was born, and between 18 and 21 in that day you could legally drink beer that was about half as alcoholic as regular beer is. It really did offer a kind of “training wheels” regime for drinking. You could get pleasantly buzzed, you always had to pee–but the veneer of bourgeoisification remained intact enough not to use strangers’ property as the latrine–and there were far fewer emergency room runs, much less toxic tragedies. We were much less likely to own cars, or to be allowed to bring them to school, so highway disasters were infrequent too. I don’t know how, when, or why that system went away, but I’m glad it was available to my cohort. We did cheat our way to the harder stuff, but it was more of a special occasion thing, with elaborate precautions.

    Oh, and yes, whenever the magic weed came around, we had a lot more fun and were a lot less disruptive.

  24. Historiann on 05 Jan 2010 at 4:11 pm #

    Indyanna–great historical point about 3.2 beer. That bit the dust in Ohio right about the time I turned 18, in 1986. As I understand it, Ronald Reagan dangled federal highway dollars as a carrot to get all states and Washington D.C. to raise their drinking ages to 21, full stop. That meant no more 3.2 beer for 18-20 year olds, which as you say provided a kind of legal “training wheels” for the experimentation with alcohol.

    At about the same time, campuses started to get really chary about all of the underage drinking going on on campus. So, they started enforcing draconian no-alcohol rules in the dorms, which had the effect of pushing students out of the dorms and into family neighborhoods and apartments. (I was in college 1986-1990, and witnessed the remarkably speedy change from the college giving entering freshmen a keg at our “welcome to college” party–I know, I still can’t believe it happened–to having to register and have a limited guest list with invitations (rather than just announcing “party at our dorm!”) if we gave a party at which we served alcohol which we had to purchase legally and with our own money.) Hence, the rise in town-gown conflict and the trashing of quality of life in college towns since ca. 1986, with the added bonus of more students with more cars and therefore more drunk driving!

    And that is a short history of how changes in alcohol policies for people under age 21 has led to crappier neighborhoods and quality of life for many of us on this blog. Say it with me now: Awesome!

  25. Sisyphus on 05 Jan 2010 at 4:22 pm #

    Ah yes, couch-burning! It seems to have died down a bit here, maybe because we had *actual* fires last year. Public vomiting is still a perennial hit, though.

    I’m going to disagree with some people and say that it’s not easy for the administration to police over-the-top party behavior; our campus has such a rep that we go into this really draconian lockdown for certain holidays like Halloween and Mardi Gras and still have lots of deaths and arrests; at a certain point you attract the “pilgrims” who want to come “experience the Party School _____ Weekend” that has become infamous, many of whom are high school or college students from other towns, and the administration has relatively little control over how they deal with these outsiders short of instituting curfews and bringing in the MPs. We had a random party advertised on facebook that drew over 20,000 outsiders who (with the help of our students) trashed the entire area in a way not seen except for the big holiday parties.

    Some campus groups have had limited success instituting traditions and entertainment events on set nights that don’t involve drinking, but when there’s this huge inertia on the part of what students want and expect, and a very polarized relationship between students and administration/the local town, what can you do?

    And I personally hate the pot-smokers so much more than the drinkers; nobody explains to the Californian kids that it’s really difficult to drive stoned, and we keep having incidents where stoned students end up driving down the wrong side of the highway or diagonally across it. Just stay at home, people!

  26. Historiann on 05 Jan 2010 at 4:32 pm #

    Sisyphus–I’m not saying it’s easy. But if universities started kicking out students who were arrested on the weekend or who engaged in public drunkenness, then they’d be able to demand an entirely different standard of behavior from their students. Unless they’re willing to kick students out, then they get the kind of student behavior they’re willing to settle for.

    The question is, why are universities so afraid of alienating students and alumni by kicking out people who have engaged in criminal behavior? (I suppose they fear that there’s always another party school down the road that will take their riffraff.) I still think that colleges and unis could differentiate themselves by taking a stand against this kind of criminal mayhem–and the benefit would be a net gain in the quality of students they admit and retain. (Perhaps like Sophia and her sister, above?)

  27. Kathleen Lowrey on 05 Jan 2010 at 4:32 pm #

    Indyanna — you’re right, there’s not much university policy can do about re-structuring society. I do think that an older in loco parentis model — while impossible to bring back — did have its up sides; for example, the idea that the university education was forming the whole person (not just narrowly professionalizing paying customers) and thus cocktail parties, or beers-after-the seminar, etc. with professors was part of the deal and modeled civilized mixed-age sociability.

    Of course, the “whole person” being formed under the old model was an 18-22 year old white dude; later, cocktail parties could turn into lechy old profs leering at “coeds”, etc. etc. — there are good reasons we gave it all up. But I actually think quite a few traditionally-aged students are surprised by how little guidance university offers; like, the hands-off legal regime doesn’t match the fact that many students expect university to be formative (not just educational) and so they get formed, willy-nilly, by what *is* on offer, much of which is bad.

  28. Kathleen Lowrey on 05 Jan 2010 at 4:39 pm #

    HIstoriann – I don’t know, but isn’t there a question as to whether universities officially can “know” what students get up to? I mean, arrests (or, say, mental illness), you name it, privacy policies and the erasure of in loco parentis can mean that universities legally *can’t* know these things (maybe if the behavior happens on university property — but peeing on, say, *my* lawn two blocks away?).

    And in part, that’s great — I don’t want to see people with arrest records or mental illness denied higher education. But it puts the university in a real bind — it’s this special, formative time for vulnerable young people but all the mechanisms we might use to watch over them are really double-edged.

  29. Janice on 05 Jan 2010 at 5:36 pm #

    I grew up in a college town and lived in dorms for several years. Ours was a “dry” campus — liquor was officially banned and I, as a non-drinker at that time, was much in demand at dorm parties to be the “door person” (the student who sat closest to the door and whose drink could be safely checked by the counsellor on her random checks).

    Two incidents of alcoholic craziness stand out in my mind: visiting friends who lived in an apartment-style dorm and watching someone drunkenly drive a car around a turn in their “neighbourhood”, hitting a parked car while they did so. Then backing up, attempting the turn again and bashing the car even more forcefully. We phoned the campus police and they came and got the guy before he got more than twenty feet further.

    The second incident happened when I lived just off-campus. A big party had been planned at a house a few streets over. Campus and city cops got word and shut it down. Apparently a few hundred would-be party-goers discontentedly began to roam the streets, picking up other students leaving the bars and such. It escalated to huge crowds roaming the streets and even storming the student union. Some of them tore the back staircase off of my building and stole my car’s gas cap while I huddled in the darkened ground-floor bedroom with my curtains pulled shut, praying they wouldn’t break the windows.

    Here in Canada, the craziness doesn’t seem as pervasive but that’s probably because I’ve either spent my time at big city universities (where the student effect is very muted) or far-flung regional campuses where the students are a small and isolated minority in the town).

  30. LadyProf on 05 Jan 2010 at 5:53 pm #

    Historiann, I think you’re totally right about drawing a line between drinking (none of our business) and misbehaviors for which one can be arrested (the problem). When Skip Gates was arrested I learned that in Massachusetts the charge of “disorderly conduct” required offending someone other than the cop himself or herself–a good proviso. So, disorderly conduct that really does cause disorder.

    The only gray area I can think of in the set of drunken misbehaviors is making a huge racket. Not sure on which side of the line that falls.

    Your idea, alas, is probably too sane to fly. If a university announced that it was going to focus on the effects of drinking rather than drinking itself, then MADD and the like would condemn it for enabling, while fratboy defenders would object to Sonny’s getting busted for his criminal antics.

  31. Flavia on 05 Jan 2010 at 8:47 pm #

    All I wanted when I was a child and a teenager was to be older, to have more freedom and to have more responsibility for myself. I looked forward to adulthood all my life, so I really don’t understand what’s not appealing about it.


    I’m someone who had a damn lot of fun in her 20s, but that fun was all post-college, when I was living in Manhattan and at least imagining myself to be leading a madcap, screwball-comedy kind of a life. In retrospect, I did a lot of the same stupid things that some of my peers did in college — drinking to excess; making poor romantic/sexual decisions — but I envisioned and staged them as part of adult life. (I might still have been surprised to be told that people in their thirties and forties! people with kids! people who owned homes! had as much fun as I imagined myself to be having just then. . . but perhaps I was better primed for the realization.)

    I hope that one thing I communicate to my students (indirectly, since I don’t talk about my personal life in the classroom) is how very awesome life can be for a female professional in her mid-thirties.

  32. Bardiac on 05 Jan 2010 at 9:06 pm #

    @Perpetua, Thanks for explaining; you’re right, we don’t arrest students so much as give them small fines for being caught drunk.

    But then, this is a state where they’re just now putting in a law to make the fourth drunk driving offense a felony.

  33. Rad Readr on 06 Jan 2010 at 1:21 am #

    And the young people’s music is so loud!!

  34. Historiann on 06 Jan 2010 at 5:36 am #

    Kathleen–on the matter of privacy: if you’re arrested or convicted of a crime, that’s a matter of public record.

    It seems to me uncontroversial to expel students who are convicted criminals–but realistically, the way law “enforcement” works in many college towns, the law is an unlikely lever against drunkenness. Too many people–landlords, bars, liquor distributors–are making too much money on student booze consumption. The constituencies who profit from student drunkenness are much more numerous and have more influence than the people who suffer the brunt of the effects of student drunkenness.

    It’s all very cynical, but again, I’m just amazed by the implied view of the status quo in college towns (apparently shared by “adults” and students alike) that adulthood is either all drudgery OR only endurable if one self-medicates with alcohol. (As Homer Simpson once said: “Alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, most of life’s problems!”) I’m glad I’m not the only one here who thought being an adult was clearly the preferable option compared to childish dependency. Flavia–my early 20s were exactly as you describe, and now I live a life that many people might find depressingly conventional and boring as a married college professor. But, I love my “boring” life. I chose it. I made it. It’s awesome. I am very lucky. (Yes, I drink, but not every night, and I would gladly give up alcohol before I’d give up anything else in my life.)

  35. polisciprof on 06 Jan 2010 at 7:43 am #

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the Amethyst Initiative yet. A group of college presidents, mostly from private colleges but some public, have started a movement to lower the drinking age and encourage responsibility.


  36. Historiann on 06 Jan 2010 at 8:09 am #

    Polisciprof: I blogged about the Amethyst Initiative last year. I haven’t heard a thing about it since then, so I assumed it was yet another effort that flamed out quickly.

  37. A on 06 Jan 2010 at 8:28 am #

    I lived in a certain CT university town while my partner was in grad school. We also lived on the “wrong” side of town – which only meant that we lived in a neighborhood that was mostly settled, long-term, non-white residents, and not students. Two observations:
    First, while our friends would balk at coming over to our apartment after dark, I always felt safer than when I lived on the South Side of Chicago in a “student ghetto” because I was guaranteed to always be more sober than many of the people out and about, and because we both made an effort to be good neighbors. There is a gentrification problem here that I am well aware of, btw.
    Second, the music venue/club/bar in this town was recently cited for serving minors, the penalty for which is a fine and closure for three months. The University pulled some strings with the city council and the venue was able to serve its closure period during the summer – when there were almost no students to go drink there, or to be upset that one of the places that would let them drink underage had been shut.

  38. squadratomagico on 06 Jan 2010 at 8:37 am #

    I, too, hated childhood (might be one reason why I don’t have kids myself — I didn’t want to inflict childhood on another person!)

    I always identified with Augustine’s statement that he would rather die than become a child again; and with a sentiment I heard ascribed to Susan Sontag, that she found the state of childhood to be “humiliating.” My thoughts exactly.

    I also, however, am intrigued by Kathleen Lowrey’s comment about age stratification in American society… I’ve been chewing this one over. It interests me because my social group is emphatically *not* that way: my circus has folks in it whose ages range from 21-62. Likewise, the parties I go to range from 20s through 50s, often with a sprinkling of pre-10 kids thrown in (though many of the adults in my group are childless, so there are relatively few younger folks around). I do think this is unusual, for I never socialized across such a wide age span before finding this particular social setting. I enjoy it very much, though, and it is interesting to think about this in comparison with the more age-stratified socializing that’s customary in US society.

  39. Historiann on 06 Jan 2010 at 8:45 am #

    On the age stratification question: one of the things I really enjoy about the academic life is that I have friends (as in, we meet for lunch/coffee and stay in touch) whose ages range from the mid-20s to mid-60s. Age ceases to matter by comparison to shared interests, work environment, etc. Maybe my experience is unusual, but I think age matters less the more one comes to identify with and inhabit the adult world (early 20s on to infinity, I guess.)

    My group of friends does not include people who are still my grad students (although it includes some former students), or any undergrads. But, I’ve written here before about the importance of boundaries for all teachers and professors.

  40. life_of_a_fool on 06 Jan 2010 at 8:54 am #

    I think the level of controversy over expelling students for criminal behavior depends (or should depend) on the permanence of that penalty. I don’t want to permanently bar anyone from higher education, though I can see expelling students from that university at that time (possibly allowing for petition for readmission or being able to apply to another university in the future). At a minimum, we should be clear we are being punitive and/or symbolic — there’s very little evidence that deterrence works, so we’re unlikely to have much of an effect on that person or any other student’s behavior by such policies. (i..e, I don’t think it will prevent such behavior through such policies).

    On your point about enjoying adulthood, I think a key part of it is that you feel that you have *chosen* your life. It seems like the dread and the discontent come from the sense that certain aspects of adulthood are inevitable and out of our control. We do have (some, constrained) choice over how to live our lives and everyone exercises choice, but if you don’t *perceive* yourself to be making choices, it’s easy to feel trapped.

  41. Historiann on 06 Jan 2010 at 9:00 am #

    life_of_a_fool, I think you’re right that satisfaction depends on feeling like you made or chose your own adult life, rather than having it made or fashioned for you. If someone is lucky enough to attend college, I’m assuming that she or he has options and choices in life. Why so many students apparently don’t exercise these more vital liberties–and choose to get lost in drink, drugs, or criminal violence instead–is very sad. They’re living a distorted, narrow vision of adulthood that sells them the illusion that this is what “freedom” is and that they chose it.

  42. life_of_a_fool on 06 Jan 2010 at 9:09 am #

    I absolutely agree — I think a lot of people do move through in this sort of fog, “this is what one does” “this is how things are” without thinking about what *they* want. They absolutely have choices (and make them, they just often don’t think them through or think of them as choices). I’ve heard this in students talking about adulthood, and in talking about drinking/drug use/etc. Many drink to get drunk because this is what college students do, even if they wish they could do things differently (which of course they can). And then they’ll get married because that’s what people do, and have kids because that’s what people do, and feel oppressed and miserable all throughout.

  43. Homostorian Americanist on 06 Jan 2010 at 9:50 am #

    I just wanted to second Bardiac’s point about the long history of this sort of behavior. From the turn of the 18th into the 19th century not one existent college in the United States was without some big revolt. Yes, they generally only happened once per campus but when they did happen buildings were burned down, and stoned, and some professors and tutors lost their lives (some pretty deliberately). There is also much evidence to suggest that alcohol abuse was widespread on almost all college campuses from the early nineteenth century onwards, and certainly by the late 19th. Further, there is an an equally long history of not prosecuting these students and instead handling the matter through internal “judicial” procedures. Colleges have been afraid of bad press for as long as there have been colleges.

    That said, it doesn’t mean that this behavior isn’t worthy of note in its own right. I’m not sure if readers are familiar with The Amethyst Initiative (http://www.amethystinitiative.org/), a group of college presidents and chancellors who are working to have the drinking age taken back down to 18. Their belief is that making alcohol enforcement the responsibility of establishments with liquor licenses will cut down on binge drinking and irresponsible drinking. It will take it out of house parties and frat parties because students won’t have to be covert about their drinking, thus cutting down on the cachet of these type of parties for students in the first place.

    It also has good sense on its side. The kids are drinking anyway. If they’re allowed to vote or die in a senseless war as a soldier, shouldn’t they (legally) be able to imbibe the sauce?

  44. Paul on 06 Jan 2010 at 10:39 am #

    I’m especially interested in the point that in the United States at least, college is seen as a unique window of opportunity for heavy drinking and drunken behavior. I think that this might be more true in the USA than in most other countries because of 1. Higher legal drinking age (technically a large percentage of undergraduates are below the legal age, but it’s much more difficult to police in a university/college environment and a lot of institutions aren’t interested in policing it much), and 2. Greater social stigma against getting intoxicated as an adult post-college in the USA than in many other countries. These two can lead to an attitude that college is simply the phase of life when one is supposed to do most of their drinking and partying. I wonder if some people actually think of paying for college as (in part) purchasing the right to engage in drunken and rowdy behavior with fewer consequences than at any other phase of their life.

  45. The History Enthusiast on 06 Jan 2010 at 10:41 am #

    My uni has a terribly raucous drinking crowd. Thankfully I haven’t witnessed much, but a couple years ago there was a party in an adjacent apartment building that turned into a brawl. There were people outside my building in the parking lot screaming and a couple of men started beating random people with baseball bats. I called 911, but who knows if the police caught the people who were inflicting the most damage. It was a scary situation. The drinking often begins on Wednesday night and continues until Sunday afternoon when the students realize, “oh shit, school starts tomorrow and I’m totally behind.” The environment is very different from my own undergrad experience at a religious-affiliated SLAC.

    Also, if anyone is interested, Beth Bailey has an excellent book about the sexual revolution on college campuses, in loco parentis, etc. titled “Sex in the Heartland.” It is a great read.

  46. Kathleen Lowrey on 06 Jan 2010 at 11:03 am #

    squadratomagico — your circus (love the moniker :) sounds really enviable!

  47. perpetua on 06 Jan 2010 at 11:54 am #

    Historiann: re: the marijuana campaign – we used to joke about that in college, too! Potheads are usually so mellow! I suppose that’s what my SLAC accomplished in a legal way a few years later when they installed cable in all the dorm rooms – made an attempt at pacifying and stupifying the frat boys via excessive television.

    I also agree with the point about Latin America – one of the most striking thing I noticed when living in southern Europe is the fact that *everyone* has a public life there. You see older folks, babies, people with disabilities of all sorts – everyone on the streets, out at night, living life. (I’ve also seen an almost astonishing amount of public urination by drunk old men in S.E. as well, so it’s not all roses and cafes. But the point is worth taking anyway.) There is community, and public space that belongs to everyone.

  48. Indyanna on 06 Jan 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    @ Homostorian Americanist: One of my favorite early modern town-gown ruckuses happened in c. 1717 in Oxford– alas, not Ohio, but one of the many “other” Oxfords. King Geo. I sent a regiment of troops, just back from the Wars of Louis XIV, to winter in that town. When the probably mainly-Jacobite students refused to “illuminate” their windows to celebrate the King’s birthday, some tipsy soldiers smashed the windows in question. Next thing, the whole town was in arms and on fire. The House of Lords had to intervene to sort things out, the regiment got sent to Minorca, and its aging Colonel was packed off back to Dublin in retirement. You could look it up. This kind of thing probably goes back to the time when Plato met Aristotle, or was it when Socrates met Eumenides?

  49. squadratomagico on 06 Jan 2010 at 5:44 pm #

    Kathleen, it’s not a moniker: I really do perform with a circus (when I’m not professing).

  50. Rad Readr on 06 Jan 2010 at 10:11 pm #

    The posts about Latin America remind me of the discussion about whether the 01 decade was bad. Well, that depends on who/what/when/howmuch. Yes, people in Latin America party across generations some time, but young people also have their own parties and clubs, etc. And while I wouldn’t deny differences in terms of social interactions, family relationships, and drinking habits (or habituses), its all relative. No need to romanticize. There are plenty of nasty drunks in Latin America too.

  51. Kathleen Lowrey on 07 Jan 2010 at 8:34 am #

    squadratomagico — that is so great!

  52. T on 09 Jan 2010 at 3:19 am #

    Paul – I think you raise an interesting point about the particularity of American laws and attitudes concerning alcohol. It makes logical sense to me that because the legal drinking age in the US is so much higher than in other countries, and because our culture is not really one in which alcohol plays a major role (though not primarily about intoxication), we seem to have a greater problem with binge-drinking among college(-aged) students than do countries with lower drinking ages, and/or a culture that includes alcohol as a feature — France, for example.

    But curiously, experience this year has completely contradicted this. I’m a doctoral student in the States and was offered a free room at the dormitories in what is considered the one of the finest, most elite universities in the country, ‘best and the brightest’, etc. Granted, it’s been years since I last lived in an undergraduate dorm, but even after four months, I am shocked at the amount of binge-drinking and ensuing rowdiness that I see (and hear…and smell…) here at all hours. Students screaming on the streets and in the dorms all night long, fire alarms pulled at 5 a.m., theft, vandalism, vomit in the hallways.

    Obviously, there are many differences between the American and French university systems, but the big one that seems relevant to this discussion is that these students are NOT paying (not just the big bucks, but anything!) to attend this school. They’re actually BEING paid by the government to go here. So what is going on here?

  53. Left of Centre on 09 Jan 2010 at 9:03 pm #

    Elsewhere in Alcohol Abuse…

    This American Life’s coverage of Penn State’s alcohol abuse problem has stirred up a lot of discussion in the blogsphere about Penn State’s problem in particular, but also more generally about these problems in other university towns….

  54. Z on 11 Jan 2010 at 7:42 pm #

    Very interesting post and thread. I went to UC Berkeley and couldn’t have afforded to be hung over, it was too academically demanding.

    Also, I had been taught that this was my last chance for an intellectual experience before entering a dreary marriage, so I was taking special advantage of the chance to enjoy what college truly had to offer.

    This idea that adulthood isn’t fun is an old one. I have always heard, and I keep hearing versions of it.

  55. steveeboy on 21 Jan 2010 at 7:15 am #

    Hey just checking in…

    Next time there is a smashed car window do NOT sweep glass, touch glass, or anything else…

    You need to send the person to a gas station with an auto vacuum.

    Some cops taught me that once and it really works.

  56. Historiann on 21 Jan 2010 at 7:24 am #

    Thanks for the tip! I now live in a college town where the little darlings go home to Denver on the weekends, so it’s much quieter, but every couple of years a few of the kids from the high school 2 blocks away think it’s funny to smash windows in my neighborhood.

  57. And now, from the department of the bloody obvious. . . : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 04 Apr 2011 at 8:41 am #

    [...] suddenly dry up, and they’ll never have fun again.  (I’ve written here about what an impoverished view of adulthood this is, and how it saddens me.  Is it just the narciscissm of youth and the students’ inability to [...]

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