It is September in Boston, and the collegians are swarming. Clutches of college freshmen stream across unfamiliar terrain, faces flush with wonder. Here on Brighton Ave., a young man just threw up on his shoes, but, thankfully, not mine as well.
They’re here to learn. But they’re also here to party loud, hard, and frequent.
College drinking is a problem so common that it hardly seems worth thinking about. Everyone knows that college students and overconsumption go together like finals week and Adderall. Binge drinking is not only a lamentable feature of college life but also an indispensable one. It is part of what defines the distinctive culture of American higher education.
But the Boston Police are cracking down, at least in neighborhoods surrounding Boston University. “We want to get out there early this year and set the tone,” Police Superintendant William Evans said. “We are going to come down a little harder at the outset than we did last year. When a party gets out of control, we’re going to take action.”
Police will be implementing a new arrest-first strategy intended to cut down on drinking violations and buttress BU’s ongoing offensive against wild parties. It’s a curious plan, coming on the heels of two years of effective alcohol education and enforcement programs at the university.
But let us grant that a great many BU students — like students at every school — still drink far more than is good for them. The national statistics are dizzying. About 40 percent of students in four-year colleges are binge drinkers, and they collectively consume 91 percent of the alcohol that students drink. In other words, the problem is fairly concentrated, but extremely severe.
In response, some college presidents, most notably those who have signed onto the Amethyst Initiative, argue that the drinking age should be lowered. The law, they contend, is useless as a deterrent. It merely forces problematic drinking underground, where staff and administrators cannot help. What is more, common sense suggests that prohibition creates a mystique that renders heavy drinking more enticing than it might otherwise be.
But there isn’t much scientific support for a reduced drinking age. While there is a strong liberty argument on behalf of a lower minimum age — there has never been a defensible civic reason to deny 18-year-olds the right to drink even as they enjoy, and sometimes suffer, all the other rights and responsibilities of adulthood — public health researchers are largely convinced that lenience will only encourage more unsafe consumption.
So we are left with arrest-first policing. And while that might have some impact, there are other options to consider. BU has made headway by educating students about the risks of heavy drinking. Now it should do its best to educate students, and their neighbors, about citizenship.
Students will drink no matter what, but they don’t have to be irresponsible toward their neighbors. They should know that a decent adult listens to reasonable complaints — such as: it’s 2 a.m., and I’d like to go to sleep now — and responds by accommodating. To behave otherwise is to indulge an abhorrent sense of entitlement and mock the norms that make society livable.
No doubt the prospect of hushing a rowdy student party is intimidating. But it doesn’t have to be. If students and neighbors developed a rapport early in the school year, the sense of dread could be reduced. Colleges have a role to play here. They could use monetary or disciplinary incentives to encourage students to speak with their neighbors about parties and quiet hours. Students should inform neighbors of party plans ahead of time, and neighbors should agree to go to students with noise complaints before calling landlords or police. All of these agreements could take the form of a contract signed by students and their neighbors, but the goal would be less to create legal obligations than to inspire engagement and relationships of care, as opposed to loathing and indifference.
While a minimum legal drinking age of 21 may be infantilizing, college students are not actually children. They can absorb lessons without punishment. And the lesson here is to live up to the ideals of a communal life in which people solve collective problems together — without entitlement, without pettiness, without handcuffs.
Simon Waxman is managing editor of Boston Review. Follow him on Twitter @simonwaxman.