National Catholic Register

Commentary

What Do You Do With ADrunken Student Early in the Morning?

On curbing drunkenness - collegiate-style

BY James V.Schall

June 3-9, 2001 Issue | Posted 6/3/01 at 1:00 PM

 

In April, eight players of the Eastern Nazarene College baseball team were caught breaking their school's rules of conduct: They had been drinking. As the team only had 17 players, one of whom was ill, the school canceled the rest of the season's schedule.

Evidently, all students at the college, not just the baseball players, promise not to drink. The ballplayers violated two rules: the religious rule not to drink and the free promise about general conduct. Whether the original rule not to drink is a good one is not a question. The university enforced its own rules.

Few students at Georgetown, George Washington or the University of Maryland are Nazarenes, eastern or western, but students at these schools have received considerable local and national notoriety recently for drinking habits and other incommodious actions.

As reported in the Washington Post on April 7, a district-zoning panel refused Georgetown's requests for expansion of the student numbers because of complaints by area residents that “immature students have filled their neglected rental homes with noise and streets with trash.” Residents complained that the university, unlike Eastern Nazarene, never disciplined students causing such disturbances. “The Board of Zoning Adjustment also ordered the university to take several steps aimed at curbing drunkenness, noise and rowdiness of off-campus students — such as staffing a daily, 24-hour hotline for neighbors’ complaints. …”

The university, in other words, is still obliged to be in loco parentis, even with legally emancipated students. The students can be blind drunk on campus so long as they don't make any noise. Presumably, the university does not take a stronger position because students have “rights.”

After losing to Duke in the final-four round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, hundreds of University of Maryland students rioted in nearby College Park. They caused some $500,000 in damages due to vandalism and arson. The local police were appalled. The chief blamed the students; he censured “the few hundred drunken hooligans who came off campus with no self-control and basically did what they wanted to do.”

This statement is a parody of modern ethical science. Since when are we to be “self-controlled” and not do “what we want to do?” The Washington Post, in an April 7 editorial, remarked on the “sad and terrible postscript to a memorable basketball season.” No doubt the riots will be more remembered than the basketball team and its exciting season.

One arrested Maryland student was a wrestler. He was charged with “first-degree and second-degree malicious burning,” and six counts of “reckless endangerment.” These are new crimes to me. Apparently, “burning” and “endangerment” are fine — but, please, let such activities not be “malicious” or “reckless.”

Towns, Gowns and Class Clowns

We do well to remember, as graduation festivities descend once again — high school as well as college — that student drinking and boisterousness are as old as universities and the towns in which they reside. It's the old “towns and gowns” equation. The towns are often accused of quietly and quickly taking the students’ silver, then they tell them to shut up and get out of sight. The towns see the students as inebriates and potential rioters who can explode at any moment — after a game, in the springtime, for any irrational reason that pops into their undisciplined heads.

The students see the town as an ungrateful cabal of tight-wad old biddies and clods who get upset if anyone so much as belches out loud in their precious streets at 2 O'clock in the morning.

I usually begin my reflection on the topic of student drinking by recalling the first two chapters of Plato's Laws. It puts the issue in order if we realize that training the young to drink prudently is a classical problem. Plato does not use the Eastern Nazarene solution of forbidding all drinking. Nor does he approve of riots and drunken melees on the local streets.

The notorious character Alcibiades is first seen as precisely a drunken and undisciplined young man, one of Socrates's main failures. Yet Socrates realized that we must learn to drink prudently, wisely. It can be done and ought to be. This learning process will require some watching over the youth and some careful judgment of character.

The Georgetown-citizen proposed “hotline” that tattles on any student caught yelling and disturbing the sleep of some resident congressman strikes me as little less than totalitarian, as do the efforts to force students out of local apartments and houses back onto the campus. Why students do not have a right to live where they want, once we grant them emancipation, is beyond me.

Riotous students should be treated like anyone else. Why their behavior is a university predicament, and not mainly a civic, familial, or personal problem, I don't know.

As a culture, we do everything we can to separate students from parents. Then we end up, when they are not self-disciplined, blaming the schools which they attend.

Of course, in thinking about this problem, we do not wonder if the philosophical content of what students study in college has anything to do with their behavior. God forbid! We teach them pragmatism, consequentialism, deconstructionism, little religion, and an ethics that can justify almost anything; then the locals, who probably hold about the same positions intellectually, complain of the results.

No doubt, anyone who has 3,000 young men and women in his neighborhood and expects complete peace and quiet in the streets is either hopelessly forgetful of his own youth or utterly naive about what human nature is composed of.

In a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, a resident named Harry Kopp has this to say about the riots at Maryland, one after an earlier Duke game and one after the Final Four game: “A Maryland fraternity member, explaining the drunken rampage at College Park, said: ‘We beat Duke, we riot, and we lose to Duke, we riot. The police should accept it.’” Kopp adds wittily, “I guess it takes a child to raze a village.”

Educating Hooligans

The day in 1978 when I flew from San Francisco to Washington to join the Georgetown faculty, I happened to notice in the airline magazine of that January date a column on college drinking. To my astonishment, Georgetown was then listed as one of the top ten “party schools” in the country. The poor Georgetown villagers have been at this for a very long time, it seems.

I do not laugh at the problem. But I do walk the streets of Georgetown to notice the amount of wine and liquor bottles that appear in the early-morning “waste management” run. If students are to learn to be sober and responsible drinkers, it strikes me that neither the Georgetown-resident solution nor the Eastern Nazarene solution is the best.

Frankly, I like the College Park police chief's rhetoric. He calls the offending youths “hooligans.” He is more likely to scare sense into drunken students than any college authority.

After all, it was Aristotle himself who told us, at the end of his Ethics, that the main cause of a civil coercive power was due to a failure of the family to teach self-discipline to its youth.

When that fails, police are going to do a better job in teaching the significance of sobriety than any university disciplinary body, suffused as it probably is with vague modern ideologies about what makes students tick.

My youngest brother was ticketed on the night before his 21st birthday at a bar near the University of Santa Clara. Chances were a thousand to one. He would never deny that it was a good lesson, nor that his father could have made the same point more forcefully.

In short, in the villages around universities, let us not drive the students into compounds and hotline them to death. Let them live among us if they will, and suffer the consequences of their own acts. As long as we blame someone else in good Rousseauist fashion for their actions — parents, churches, universities, fraternities — nothing much will be different.

Let us respect the Eastern Nazarene solution, but, in this case, follow Aristotle and the police chief in self-discipline — and in coercion, when needed.

Jesuit Father James Schall teaches political science at Georgetown University.