How To Train Your MiddKid

October 17, 2013

Imagine you’re a parent, and you want to make sure your daughter never burns herself on a stove. Do you: 1) Try to hide every stove in the United States; 2) Teach your child that a stove can be used responsibly, or it can burn down the house and kill everyone in it. Do you want to raise a Julia Child, as opposed to a Sylvia Plath, or would you rather let the kid figure it out through trial and error?

This sure doesn’t seem like a particularly tough question to me. And yet, our college has put most of its faith in choice #1. Here are the consequences of that decision:

1) Binge drinking. To avoid getting a citation, students huddle silently in their rooms, and knock back shots in rapid-fire succession, trying to get their BAC high enough before Public Safety arrives.

2) Infantilization. By acting like overprotective parents, Public Safety encourages students to develop a child-like relationship with alcohol — a disposition that is fundamentally different from that of a mature adult drinker. When was the last time you saw an adult at a dinner party down 18 shots and vomit all over the furniture? Would that seem strange to you? How come it wouldn’t seem strange at all if that adult was a student at Middlebury College? Maybe it’s because the closed-door drinking policy encourages students to believe that drinking always has to be swift, secretive, and sloppy.

3) First-year Misery. While it may suck to be a freshman anywhere, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it sucks particularly badly at Middlebury. You live in constant fear of Public Safety, and the drinking policy leads directly to the cliquishness that corrodes Middlebury’s social scene. When a freshman walks into a hallway of locked doors (lest an open door expose the drinkers to patrolling officers), there are immediate barriers to meeting new people. Many students form 5-6 person drinking teams their freshmen year, and stick with this clique till they graduate. The result of all this is morose freshmen. And do you think sad students drink more responsibly than happy students?  I sure don’t. Do you think it’s the happy students who destroy the dorms and use dishes to play catch with the walls? As someone who lived in the Dungeon of Allen freshman year, let me assure you — it’s not.

Binge drinking is an international epidemic, of course, but our current policy actively promotes it by making casual drinking impossible and destabilizing moods. I have no doubt at all that Public Safety officers have the best of intentions, and I don’t mean to blame them individually. The problem is that they’re enforcing a disastrous policy.

The solution seems obvious to me: treat Public Safety like vampires, and forbid them from entering dormitories unless they are invited inside. If you think this is an impossibly crazy idea, I recommend you visit a school like Wash U. At Wash U, freshmen must leave their doors open, so that RAs can make sure they are drinking safely. Now what sounds like a more progressive policy to you: let’s make sure no one is drinking themselves into a coma, or let’s make sure no one is drinking in the hallway? Whose safety is being protected by giving me a citation for drinking a beer in the hallway? The carpet’s?

The problem with debating drug policies is that you always have to confront anecdotal evidence that plucks at your heartstrings. Pragmatism falls victim to emotionalism.  Sadly, I’m no longer intimidated by anecdotes. My freshman year, my best friend Nick Garza drank 18 shots, stepped outside, and vanished off the face of the Earth. My friends and I waited four long months for him to come back, but he never did, and the police found his body under the logs in Otter Creek.

I know who is ultimately responsible for what happened — Nick himself. But do I in any way hold Middlebury’s policies accountable? I’d be lying if I said that I don’t.

Nick was one of these miserable freshmen. It wasn’t the workload or the cold that got to him, it was that no matter what he did, he couldn’t seem to have fun here. The system seemed to be rigged against him. We will never know why Nick walked off aimlessly into the woods in a drunken stupor.  But we do know that he was treated like a fugitive every time he tried to drink a beer. And we know that for Nick, and for many freshmen who come here from sunny, happy lives, Middlebury seemed unexpectedly more restrictive and less enjoyable than life in high school.

I understand why so many people want to use coercive methods to stop kids from drinking. If alcohol had never existed, or if punitive policies had actually stopped Nick from being able to drink, maybe he would be alive today. These prohibitionists just can’t understand why so many of us need to drink to have fun. It’s a good question, and I don’t have any answers. But even though I understand the prohibitionists, I also know that they are wrong. There is no real “debate” here.

On the one side are the people who want to hide all the stoves in the United States to save their children from burns. On the other side are the people who want to teach young adults how to play with fire, either through gloomy cautionary tales, or by extolling the virtues of moderation. It is a debate between the deluded and the informed.

Prohibition has never worked, and it never will, and this college should be on the right side of the battle, fighting it tooth and nail instead of surrendering to a mindless and repressive attitude that stands in opposition to all the brawny intelligence and imagination that rules Middlebury classrooms.

Keep the doors open.

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