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My very first drink

Bob Kessler | Friday, August 29, 2008

Our lives have a lot of firsts: The first time I ever rode a bicycle without training wheels (my dad had my back and showed me the way), the first time I skied down a hill (my mom brought me up the chair lift), and the first time I ever drove a car (my dad was giving me instructions from the passenger seat). But the first time I ever drank alcohol was three years ago today in a room full of complete strangers.

The first time I ever drank alcohol was three years ago at my Disorientation, or Dis-O. Thrown into a room where I didn’t know anybody, I chose to drink what I could because I wanted to fit in and because it seemed like it would be fun. Although I couldn’t drink much at all, it was a lot of fun and I have been actively partaking in the alcohol-fueled college culture ever since.

Last month, a group of college and university presidents sought to curb this binge drinking culture across the country by forming the Amethyst Initiative. The Initiative is a project of Choose Responsibility and has the stated goal of rethinking the legal drinking age. However, these presidents are not seeking a higher legal drinking age, but rather a lower one that would give students an actual choice when it comes to their legal drinking options. While some have called this crazy, I believe that it is the only correct way to build a more responsible society.

Under our current laws, students are immediately granted full rights to alcohol purchase, transport and consumption when the clock strikes midnight at their 21st birthday. In theory, these people have no prior experience with alcohol and would have no way to actually know how to responsibly consume it. Combine this with the college setting at which many Americans turn 21, and you have a lethal disaster for binge drinking and irresponsibility.

While my bicycle had training wheels, skiing had the bunny hill and driving had a learner’s permit, the laws on drinking leave no room for education. These laws simply drop us right into the responsibility of alcohol without bothering to take the time to teach us how to actually drink responsibly.

Furthermore, while parents and teachers are greatly involved with educating us about how to safely drive a car, the only drinking education we receive is informally given to us by friends and older siblings.

In fact, the only formal education I ever received in school about alcohol was that it was bad. My high school preached alcohol abstinence much to the degree that the priests discuss sexual abstinence. I was never really taught about different types of alcohol and their practical effects on the body until I started drinking myself. And where did this leave me?

It left me in that room at Dis-O surrounded by complete strangers wondering if a bottle of Malt Liquor was hard alcohol or not. It left my alcohol education not to parents and teachers, but to certain members of the Notre Dame Class of 2008 who took me and my peers under their wing and showed us the way. It left me to learn how to binge drink at parties and tailgates, but not how to drink at dinners and events. It was like attempting a double black diamond on your first time skiing.

We need a system that allows us to progressively learn from our elders how to responsibly enjoy alcohol. Much like the year that we have a learner’s permit, I believe that we need to have a year’s worth of alcohol education. This would essentially involve granting young adults who are 18 the right to legally drink, but not the right to legally purchase alcohol and not the right to legally enter bars. During this time, 18-year-olds would be forced to drink with people who are older, and wiser, and would inevitably gain from it.

Instead we have a system in place where young adults learn about alcohol not from their parents and relatives but from their friends and siblings. Earlier this week I had to spend several hours trying to convince an acquaintance not to drive home after drinking, even though “all of his friends from home do it.” While I was lucky enough to learn from a smart group of guys whose poor decisions only went as far as they could walk, our laws can not assume that every young adult will be given this informal education. Our responsibility only goes so far as our education, and the current system is failing to educate young adults about how to drink properly.

Because of these problems, I not only strongly support a lower legal drinking age, but I urge Fr. Jenkins, our University officials, and all University officials across the country to show support for this Initiative. If you don’t believe in its merits, just walk around campus this afternoon, drive down Washington Street this evening and wander through Turtle Creek late tonight. It will be in these places, as opposed to DeBartolo Hall, where the real education of our freshmen will begin, and the failure of our country’s system will be all too evident.

Bob Kessler is a senior majoring in political science and economics. You can contact him at rkessler@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.