Since its inception in July, the Amethyst Initiative has picked up supporters and headlines for its quest to "rethink" the federal drinking age. The petition, which seeks to lower the drinking age to address the "culture of dangerous binge drinking" on university campuses, now has 130 signatories to its name, including the presidents of Duke and Johns Hopkins Universities.
U of C students should be glad that President Zimmer is not one of them.
While the signatories undoubtedly mean well, the Initiative lacks both the evidence and the conviction with which to make any substantive impact. Bursting with rhetorical fluff and sweeping platitudes, the petition calls for an "informed and dispassionate debate" but does little to further said debate.
High-minded language is unsurprising from a petition authored by college presidents, but the words they omit are far more important.
Specifically, they provide no facts to support their claim that the federal drinking age has any a causal effect on binge drinking on college campuses. It seems, perhaps, that the signatories are simply trying to pass the buck on an issue that they have been unable to solve.
It's unclear what causes binge drinking at universities. Constraints placed by a higher drinking age could conceivably play a part; on the other hand, it might simply be the inevitable consequences of putting thousands of twentysomethings and teenagers in one place with newfound freedom and little supervision.
It's a serious issue that exacts a large toll on undergraduates across the country. But it's also a university issue that requires real initiative from presidents and administrators. Certainly there are more constructive approaches to confronting underage drinking than simply classifying fewer people as underage.
The group's fragile reasoning also detracts from the legitimate arguments for lowering the drinking age—specifically, that 18-year-olds are mature enough to be given the personal freedom to drink alcohol.
The current threshold unnecessarily inconveniences millions of people when a higher tax on alcohol or more comprehensive, less stigmatizing drug and alcohol education might have a more direct impact on reducing the externalities of drinking.
There are sound arguments for lowering the drinking age, but the Amethyst Initiative makes none of them.
The name Amethyst, as the group points out, has its origins in Greek mythology, where the purple stone was believed to cure drunkenness.
Yet in picking a Greek legend for their namesake, the organizers of the Amethyst Initiative have underscored their petition's fatal flaw. Absent any data to the contrary, the link between the drinking age and binge drinking on college campuses is nothing short of a myth.