Interview with Dr. Roderic B. Park
Long-time college administrator Dr. Roderic B. Park proposes the issuance of drinking 'learner permits' or licenses for under-age persons as a way to help teach moderate drinking and reduce alcohol abuse. Prof. Park is interviewed by Dr. David J. Hanson.
Dr. Park, you served as Chancellor of the University of Colorado as well as the Vice Chancellor at Berkeley and have had many years of experience with college students. Could you explain the problem of alcohol abuse among college students and other young people?
Yes. Currently, young people can legally purchase and drink alcohol only when they reach the arbitrary age of 21. There is no educational requirement before they can legally purchase, such as knowledge of legal limitations and liabilities, the facts of intoxication, or the role of intoxication in the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases. There is no reason to assume that people suddenly and magically become mature or wise or thoughtful at any arbitrary age. Nevertheless, in a kind of simplistic hypocrisy, the age of 21 law has become part of our culture's "solution" to the problem of irresponsible drinking. Indeed, if this law actually worked, and a decrease in automobile fatalities of ages 16-20 could be attributed to the age 21 law, why not make it age 25 -- or 34 -- or 42?
On the other hand, we permit people to marry, join the military, sign legally binding contracts, and vote at the age of 18. Thus a couple getting married at the age of 20 can't enjoy a toast of champagne at their wedding! Not very logical.
I see your point. What are the effects of the current age 21 legislation?
Well, it is clear that the minimum drinking age of 21 is not working. Recent national surveys show that about 90% of U.S. high school students have consumed alcohol beverages. Half of these teenagers drink regularly. These are "inexperienced" drinkers who have generally received no education on the personal and social consequences of alcohol abuse and are typically acting without parental knowledge or guidance.
Such inexperienced and untutored young people usually consume alcohol in an environment with a lack of norms promoting moderation. We see the results daily in the police blotter. Lives are ruined or cut short, families are heart-broken, and society loses productive human resources. Police write endless citations in an almost futile effort to reduce underage drinking, which has the effect of driving it underground into even less social-controlled environments, making drinking abuse worse. And of course, underage drinking leads to a disrespect for law among young people, who see the legislation as unfair and discriminatory.
Underage drinking is also a concern of parents, many of whom have offered high school "keg parties" at home rather than accepting the alternative of young people being out drinking and driving. Thus many parents are forced into joining the disregard for age 21 laws. We all join Mothers Against Drunk Driving in our rejection of drunk driving. But if, as Benjamin Franklin stated, death and taxes are a certainty, so too are alcohol and automobiles. There is evidence that underage drinkers are more conscious than their parents about using designated non-drinking drivers. Why not build on this sense of responsibility among the young through a program of education and monitoring?
That's an intriguing concept. Could you elaborate on what you have in mind?
I think we should step up to the challenge of changing the youth culture from one that is too accepting of abusive behavior to one intolerant of abuse and promoting responsibility. We should consider establishing a type of "learner's permit" for limited alcohol consumption, similar in concept to the driver's permit. With parental or guardian permission, a person under the age of 21 might apply for such a "license" which allowed limited use of beverage alcohol under monitored conditions where the licensee is held accountable. Licensing would occur within the context of educational programs and parental or guardian supervision. Permit cards, similar to a student driving license, could be issued for the purchase of alcohol and, like a driving license, could serve as a social contract used to help monitor the holder's conduct.
One prerequisite for receiving the card would be passing a course on the expectations of responsible use of alcohol, what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable conduct, and the consequences of alcohol abuse. We have similar, clearly defined expectations for receiving a driver's license; why not have the same for alcohol consumption?
This seems like a positive rather than negative approach to the problem, doesn't it?
Yes. I have always believed that the way people become most responsible is by giving them responsibility. I think young adults would be responsible with such a privilege following education and with appropriate monitoring. Federal legislation allowing states to experiment within certain guidelines and with careful monitoring would lead us to more civil, productive and effective citizenship for our sons and daughters.
Are there any potential downsides from this approach?
Well, first, we would be trying to change an "alcohol culture" and that could be difficult. However, I am encouraged by such an effort at the University of Colorado at Boulder. During the first year of our programs police reports of alcohol-related incidents around football games were running at less than half the previous level. Fraternities and sororities are running dry formal events. We received support from local police, from the Parents Association and from the Commissioner of the Big XII Conference representing the Big XII presidents.
Well, MADD and SADD had remarkable success in changing our society's drunk driving attitudes and behaviors....and they did so in a short period, so I think you good reason to be very optimistic. Are there any other potential problems?
Some in the advertising industry might try to exploit a new and younger population. However others are promoting and engaging in responsible advertising, a trend which should be encouraged. Could education and monitoring outweigh these two potential risks? I believe they would. I have confidence that our young people will be more responsible when properly educated and given appropriate responsibility with guidance and positive societal expectations.
No one can be certain that any particular idea such as the "learner's permit" will work. The point is to seek creative and workable solutions to the tragic consequences of alcohol abuse in American society. We can and must do better.
Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us.
A Professor of Botany and then Plant Biology at UC Berkeley for 34 years, Dr. Roderic B. Park was the Dean of Letters and Science from 1972-80 and the Vice Chancellor from 1980-90. He served as Chancellor of the Boulder Campus of The University of Colorado from 1994-97, when he became Professor Emeritus.