Setting the Bar at 18
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: Given the growing problem of binge drinking on campuses, it's time to drop the drinking age below 21. Decriminalizing drinking by kids 18 and older, McCardell says, will bring their alcohol consumption out from hiding to where parents and adults can monitor it and teach 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 driver's ed. Driver's 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.
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 supplier-either 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.
Also, I've been a member of the Middlebury faculty since 1976, so I was on a college campus when the drinking age was 18. There was natural and adult intergenerational social interaction. The faculty and staff were able to model responsible drinking behavior.