Animal House revisited
Q: What's changed to make students drink so dangerously?
A: I think in the 1980s when the national 21 drinking age went into effect. When I was in college we'd invite faculty members and their wives to our cocktail parties. You felt like a grownup and you ended up, as a result, acting like a grownup. You could also see that adults could have two drinks and then stop. Now they don't see that because no adult who doesn't want to be sued is going to be anywhere near an underage drinker.
Q: You make the somewhat counterintuitive case that one solution might be lowering the drinking age to 18 again. How likely is that?
A: I think it's unlikely to happen because it's just very hard for a politician to come out with a sound bite in defense of lowering the drinking age. And MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] and the people who were instrumental in getting that law passed in the first place will land on them like a ton of bricks. At some point, I hope they will at least think about it. There are some people, including John McCardell, who was the former president of Middlebury, who's trying to look at this seriously, to put together some white papers and start to build the political groundwork to go back to this. Here's a guy who spent 13 years as president of a very prestigious college saying this is bad policy. It's not that you're in favor of younger people drinking a lot. It's just that this isn't the answer. This isn't doing it.
Q: Beyond excessive drinking, you also make the case that students are disconnected from academics, from the faculty, and from each other.
A: Students are not working as hard as they used to. Grade inflation is a real thing. I've had students tell me, if they handed us more work to do, we'd rise to the occasion. If you keep them busy doing what they're supposed to be doing in college they're not going to have time to get in trouble. And that's where the disconnection comes inthe disconnection between faculty and students. There's a kid at Duke who said there's an unwritten contract here which says "We won't bother you if you won't bother us." It's unfortunately quite true, even at these high-end schools.
You expect that at a Wisconsin or a Berkeley or an Indiana. You shouldn't have that at Stanford. And you certainly shouldn't have that at a Hamilton or a Middlebury or a Pomona. It is better at the small colleges, the community is so small it's hard not to know people, but it's still not as intimate a relationship as there was when I was there.
Q: Even with all of today's technology, you still don't see students connecting in the same way?
A: All the tools of connection are here. You've got people IM-ing and everything else. At Stanford, the first day I was there, I sat in on a meeting where the academic computing department was talking about putting in videoconference units into the residence halls, so that they could have instant communications, videoconferencing with students who were in Florence that semester and you go wow, I mean, this is a totally different world.