The college presidents said they wanted a national debate on the 21-year-old drinking age. They got it.
For years, former Middlebury College President John McCardell has been criticizing the law, saying it only encourages binge drinking and pushes alcohol into the shadows.
But then McCardell quietly enlisted about 100 college presidents in a campaign calling for the drinking age to be reconsidered. After The Associated Press reported on the effort this week, the issue erupted into the biggest discussion on the subject in years — in blogs, over e-mail, in newspaper editorials and around office water coolers.
Since the controversy erupted, two university presidents who signed on to the campaign got cold feet and withdrew their support, but another 20 added their names to the list. If nothing else, the idea is receiving exposure.
My thoughts on this today are the same as they were last March: I think there is merit to the idea of lowering the drinking age, but I also think it would likely create a host of new problems and, in any case, opposition from organizations such as MADD would probably prevent it from occuring, anyway.
Nevertheless, I appreciate the fact that a group of university presidents are standing up and saying: "hey, what we're doing right now obviously isn't working, and we need to have a rational discussion about it." There's no question that underage drinking is widespread and that alcohol is generally available to anybody who wants it, regardless of age. There's no denying the fact that a drinking culture exists among the nation's youth, whether it be on college campuses or spring break beaches, that facilitates binge drinking. And there is something rather perverse about the concept that you only have to be 18 to legally vote or fight (and possibly die) for your country, but 21 to drink a beer. What's the harm in discussing alternatives to the existing drinking age, such as provisionally allowing 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds to consume alcohol in controlled settings on college campuses or military bases?
The problem is, can this country really have a rational discussion about young people and alcohol? Or will MADD, prohibitionist religious groups and risk-averse politicians simply try to shut down any debate by portraying anybody who is in favor of relaxing the drinking age as encouraging underage alcohol abuse, drunk driving and juvenile deliquency? Given the nation's lack of ability to seriously debate the failure that is the "War on Drugs," I can't say I'm optimistic.
I still don't think this movement is going to go anywhere in the long run, but I'll continue to follow it to see what happens.