June 11, 2007 issue - John M. McCardell Jr.'s latest mission may have a greater effect on college freshmen than anything he did during his 13 years as president of Middlebury College: he wants to lower the drinking age to 18—but not in order to encourage drinking. In January he started a nonprofit organization, Choose Responsibility, which proposes educating teens in responsible drinking just as we teach safe driving, and then rewarding them with a drinking license, for which they become eligible at 18. He spoke with Samantha Henig.
What's wrong with the current legal drinking age of 21?
It has driven drinking off campus, behind closed doors and underground, into dark corners where it can't be supervised or managed and where responsible drinking can't be modeled. Binge drinking is this generation's protest of an unjust law.
That's a rather sympathetic view of binge drinkers.
If I shake my finger in your face often enough, and say to you, "Your brain's not fully matured, your judgment is incomplete, you are still a child when it comes to alcohol," why should I be surprised when I get infantile behavior? Alcohol is a reality in the lives of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds. Anybody denying that inhabits a different planet. The goal of public policy should be to create the safest possible environment for that reality to take place.
You believe education can help make that happen?
Alcohol education now consists of little more than lectures, readings and videos. We would never teach driver's ed that way. We would never tell potential drivers just to read some books and hand them the keys.
You'd let 18-year-olds, licensed or not, drink at home with their parents?
A vast majority of 18-year-olds already are consuming alcohol, [but] for the first time they're going to be able to do it in the presence of their parents, out in the open, in the privacy of their home. We think that's a good thing. Legal age 21, frankly, is antifamily.
I'm sure you have encountered a lot of critics on this issue.
I've been described as a wacko or as somebody who's tilting at windmills. I don't know what the public or the scientific community has to fear about having this debate.
This makes a lot of sense to me - perhaps it's because it was my father's approach. He felt it was more important for us to learn how to drink responsibility than to be out puking in an alley somewhere. He also advised me to drink my liquor straight. Said to stay away from mixed drinks, particularly those super sweet girly ones, since you could never be clear of how much alcohol you were taking in. I've followed that to this day - from the early years of drinking a lot, to my neglible intake at this middle-age. Of course some people will always have problems with alcohol, with knowing how much is enough and drinking responsibility (hell, I have that problem with food!), but I agree we've created a monster by encouraging a sense of taboo and hidden thrills. Binge drinking is a terrible by-product.