One Man's Case for a Lower Drinking Age
John McCardell is a man on a mission. The former president of Middlebury College and founder of the nonprofit group Choose Responsibility is traveling the country this spring to drum up support among college presidents and policy experts for a counterintuitive proposal: that given the growing problem of binge drinking on campus, it's time to drop the drinking age below 21. Decriminalizing drinking by people 18 and older, McCardell says, will bring their alcohol consumption out from hiding, where parents and adults can monitor itand model responsibility without conflict. Young adults between the ages of 18 and 20 could earn a license to buy and use alcohol by completing an alcohol education program.
What makes you think your proposal would work?
As things stand, alcohol is a reality in the lives of 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds. And prohibition doesn't work. Public policy should not be to try to change deeply seated human behavior. The goal should be to create the safest possible environment for that reality to take place. Legal Age 21 [the law requiring states to set the bar at age 21 or lose federal highway funding] does not do that.
If you infantilize people, you can't profess astonishment when you see infantile behavior. Alcohol education is mandatory now only after you've been convicted of driving under the influence. That makes no sense. Why not make it available earlier as a way of preparing young people to deal with alcohol responsibly? I think the analogy is drivers' ed. Drivers' ed works because there's a generally agreed-upon curriculum; a partnership between the family and the government, and because there's an incentive at the end in the form of a license.
What's to stop kids from getting the license and going wild?
If you are in violation of your state's alcohol laws prior to turning 18, you forfeit your eligibility for the license. This may do more to reduce the problem of underage drinking than anything else that we've tried. And if you violate the laws of your state after receiving the license, by giving alcohol to a minor or driving drunk, say, it is instantaneously revoked.
Choose Responsibility is trying to mobilize support among college students. What's in it for them if they're already managing to drink?
The generation that I come from was disposed to respond to unjust laws by occupying buildings, staging demonstrations, carrying placards. This current generation is not that way. I think they're engaging in a different form of civil disobedience, and that binge drinking might be a form of protest of an unjust law. If they have the slightest sense that there are people like me and Choose Responsibility willing to support them, I think they'll step up and express themselves.
What brought you to this set of beliefs?
Much of my interest in this issue has come out of my own parental experience. When my 20-year-old son comes home from college at Christmastime, if I serve him alcohol, I'm communicating a message I'm not sure I ought to. But if I tell him under no circumstances will we serve him wine with Christmas dinner, I know perfectly well that he's going to be able to find some other suppliereither where parents are more tolerant or where there is no adult presence. Given those impossible choices I would far rather have that experience take place at home under my supervision. I think most parents would agree with me.