Several months ago, the freshmen class of St. Albans completed its “Andy Thomas Week,” where freshmen learned about the dangers of drinking alcohol. No doubt, they were told that alcohol can produce terrible outcomes for high school students, among them suspension, recission, or expulsion. Even more alarming for the freshmen, they were probably told that alcohol is an addictive substance that has a detrimental effect on the growth of the brain. In no uncertain terms, they learned that they are putting their very lives at stake if, God forbid, they yearn to try beer at some point in high school.
While the first points are legitimate, the latter ones are nonsense. The dire warnings propagated by the school are pure hyperbole, meant to indoctrinate the freshmen into a “safer” and “morally pure” lifestyle. All the while, the people proclaiming the evils of alcohol are individuals who almost certainly drank in high school. Their idea that teens immediately put themselves in danger by drinking alcohol is asinine dogma, neither supported by history nor grounded in reality.
The notion that it makes one a better person to avoid drinking is also not worthy of any attention. There is nothing morally superior about one who refrains from consuming alcohol. They do not subscribe to any understanding of virtue that the rest do not. They are simply misguided, fearful of violating some unwritten and arcane doctrine that declares the consumption of alcohol a sin.
After all, it must be asked: if alcohol is so dangerous, then why does the United States stand alone in its severe punishment for underage drinkers? Almost every other nation, and most certainly every other Western nation, maintains a much more relaxed “drinking age.” Throughout Europe, for example, the arrest of a minor for consuming alcohol is a laughable prospect for metropolitan police departments. There, young people can often be found at bars or social clubs drinking in plain view. But they are not morally inferior to their transatlantic counterparts, as some may believe, nor do they have suffer long term brain damage. They simply differ in one key area of their daily lives: the vast majority of European teenagers do not drive.
The drinking age in the District of Columbia was eighteen at one point. While it is now the standard twenty-one–year limit, the fact that it was once the legal age of adulthood means that there was a time when teenage drinking was not treated with the same level of hysteria as it is today. It was once an open secret that St. Albans seniors drank beer in the former “Senior Room,” and little, if anything, was done to stop them. It was expected that teenagers could handle drinking with a degree of responsibility, as they did their other privileges. The drinking age was raised in the 1980’s, but mainly because of efforts by nonprofit organizations to reduce the rate of car collisions.
Driving while drunk is one of the most foolish and reckless things a teenager, or anyone, can do, but the recklessness of a few should not preclude the enjoyment of the many. The main issue that opponents took with the lower drinking age was the higher rate of car collisions, but even they did not include concerns about “brain damage” or “hormonal development” in their arguments.
To continue the collective punishment in existence today is an affront to America’s dedication to the “pursuit of happiness,” especially at a time when it is easier than ever to avoid driving while drunk. California, for example, has seen a sharp drop in DUI’s following the advent of Uber, Lyft, and other ridesharing apps. Seen in this light, strict penalties for underage alcohol consumption are a relic of the past, and should be changed to accommodate the technological improvements of the past decade.
Furthermore, the harsh measures imposed on underage drinkers are fundamentally un-American. Because of America’s commitment to freedom, a St. Albans senior can vote in an election, open a savings account, or purchase a gun with relative ease. When an American turns eighteen, they are assumed by the government to have attained a level of maturity that makes them deserving of these and other liberties. They are, after all, adults. It therefore makes no sense why, in the so-called “the land of the free,” underage alcohol consumption continues to be treated with the current punitive measures.
Still, this is not an endorsement of repealing the drinking age. If students were allowed to attend high school dances under the influence of alcohol it goes without saying that such occasions would gradually devolve into chaos, although St. Albans most likely caught a glimpse of that at its 2019 Homecoming dance. Some order must be maintained, and lowering the drinking age would bring about disorder in high schools across the country. What should be done with respect to underage drinking is something akin to the decriminalization measures applied to marijuana in several states. Nobody should face jail time for drinking, nor an excessive fine. If they do not consume alcohol before driving, there is no reason for their license to be suspended. If found off school grounds, they should not be subject to retribution by the people entrusted with their academic development. In other words, drinking should not be strictly enforced by the government nor vehemently denounced by schools.
The point is this: teens drink. They always have, and they always will. Contrary to many depictions of high school, the studious and the unruly alike enjoy the feeling of intoxication. At graduation, close to every single person on the Cathedral stage consumed alcohol at some point in high school, including the faculty. To treat drinking as something taboo does little to address the reality of the situation. While concerns about drunk driving and abusive behavior are justified, they are most definitely overblown. The drinking age in this country is twenty one because of car accidents, not teenage development.
The educational emphasis, therefore, should be placed on preparing students for this modern climate. Schools should teach them how to behave responsibly, not that drinking in high school puts them at risk of immediate death. Drinking, like any activity, can have negative effects if done in excess. But that is not how the vast majority of people drink, especially the young. Young people have consumed alcohol since the invention of the written word, literally. If drinking really did incur long-lasting damage on their minds, we would know by now.