Party Culture as Moral Community

(For the next few weeks I’d like to intersperse blog thoughts on college students and church related higher education along with other topics that catch my attention.  I’m working on a writing project and would appreciate the feedback.)

 

Students-partying-at-the-001One of the most enduring and troubling features of the college student experience is the party culture.  Even though college students have always engaged in drinking and partying, the significant difference between “back then” and now is the intensity of the activity and the hardness of the alcohol involved.

Scholars tend to approach this problem from one of three perspectives: public health, mental health or sociological analysis.  The first two are self-explanattory.  The health risks associated with the kind of hard drinking students do these days are well known.  The third category (the sociology of partying) is relatively unexplored, according to Thomas Vander Ven whose book, Getting Wasted (New York University Press)  offers an example.  Dr. Vander Venn came to our campus a couple of weeks ago and led us in thought-provoking conversation.

http://www.amazon.com/Getting-Wasted-College-Students-Drink/dp/0814788327/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1366405135&sr=8-1&keywords=Vander+Ven%2C+Thomas

Dr. Vander Ven’s book provides important insight.  He is deeply concerned about the seriousness of the endeavor and is trying to help us understand what is going on with extreme partying.  He explores the social benefits of partying, like “drunk support” (you take care of me when I’m drunk and I’ll take care of you when you’re drunk).  He reflects on the possibility that hard drinking and the attendant risks give students opportunity to practice adult responsibilities.  When you’re friend is drunk and you have to take care of her or him, you are in the role of parent, bearing responsibility for and acting as if you’re taking care of a child.

Even being hung over together has social benefits.  If you and others are hung over together, the shared pain is “fun.”  (No kidding, this is how interviewees describe it.)  There is a sense of belonging experienced in the shared suffering.

I think Dr. Vander Ven is really onto something.  What is missing altogether from attempts to understand and improve this problem is the moral quality of the community (even if shaky and temporary) that students form in the party culture.  I have brought up this point here and there in previous posts.  I have also said that peer pressure is moral pressure.  Let’s consider how and, more importantly, why it seems so hard for people who work with college students to recognize the moral dimension of this issue.

But first one important set-up for what follows: Various authors have noticed a reductive quality of most college ethics courses and broader attempts to think ethically.  The emphasis falls almost exclusively on rules or principles governing behavior: what ought I to do or not to do in a given situation?  What is the moral obligation in terms of behavior?  Taking this approach leaves out the question of desire and motive altogether and numerous arguments have been put forward to justify it.

How Do We Recognize the “Moral” in the Partying?

But ethics and moral philosophy are not only about “oughts” with regard to behavior.  Morality also has to do with the good(s) which I (we) pursue.  One of the reasons it has seemed more important to ethicists to concentrate on rules governing behavior is that the goods we pursue are so vastly different from one another and based on such varying religious and ethical systems, that we need a kind of clearinghouse-type set of rules to provide common procedures in a diverse environment.

For example, two roommates get into a disagreement over visitation rights of boyfriends/girlfriends.  One roommate wants the freedom to have lover over  all night if he/she chooses.  The other wants privacy and does not want sleepovers.  How do you adjudicate this disagreement, given that each roommate is operating from her own set of moral values?  The Resident Assistant (RA) is asked to step in and help work through the disagreement.  But the RA officially takes no position herself regarding the morality of sleepovers.  The goal is to provide guidelines for dispute resolution while leaving substantive moral concerns aside.

With regard to partying (and I use the sleepover example because partying and recreational sex – not to mention unwanted sex and sexual assault, go together), a school can have no official moral position, other than what the law says.  If you’re under 21 years of age, it is illegal for you to drink, therefore you should not drink (wink, wink, nod, nod).  If you’re of legal drinking age, you should “drink responsibly.”  And, by the way, if you’re under age, we know you’re going to drink anyway, so please “drink responsibly.” Notice the focus on behavior.

Now we turn to the moral community that is the party community.  I have spent hours talking with students about this issue.  They do a cost-benefit analysis (notice the economic utilitarianism at work).  The benefits of sociability, fun, hookups, release from the pressures of college, etc., far outweigh the risk of getting caught and getting in trouble and of getting too drunk, getting sick, having alcohol poisoning, or a terrible hangover the next morning, not to mention a number of risks when attempting alcohol detoxification.

College students thus pursue a good when they party.  They are part of a community committed to pursuing that good.  It is a good based on their background beliefs (“college is about partying and having a good time”).  Many of them come to college knowing that partying is “just what college kids do.”  Many of them go against their personal values and get swept up in the extreme behavior because, as Vander Ven has shown, there is a social benefit to joining the action.  What is not clear and which needs to become clear is that this is students’ version of a moral community, a community of goods, that our procedural, rule-based efforts simply do not touch.

And the campus ethos is totally complicit.  Partly because of the erosion of liberal arts curricula and partly for other reasons, students have virtually no experiences that encourage deep moral reflection.  Colleges and universities also do almost nothing to give students intellectual resources to recognize moral systems as such so that they can do the personal reflection they need to do to become truly well-educated.

Our institutional moral duplicity in this matter is alarming.  We do not want to meddle in what we consider students’ private lives.  We don’t want to seem moralistic.  We talk as if the way we operate is the fairest and most neutral with regard to individual private beliefs, but the truth is, we have capitulated to a particular moral system (ad hoc as it may be) that epitomizes individual autonomy and subjective wellbeing as the ultimate measures for good.  Not neutral, but actually committed to the same set of goods to which students recur in order to party!  We teach them this moral system, then wonder why they act the way they do.

The best (and maybe only) way forward is for colleges to come clean about our entanglements that contribute to the problem.  For the sake of our students, we must re-enter moral conversations with our students.  While some people will likely resist this call for fear of imposed religious doctrines, we must remember that some version of somebody’s view will be imposed.  There is no way around it.

There is a de facto moral community on our college campuses right now, driven by students’ commitments to the goods associated with extreme partying.  It is a moral community, to be sure, even though it is not one we typically associate with the word “moral.”

What do you think?

 

 

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. One of the nice things about teaching at a Christian college is that I am allowed to include substantive Christian teaching in class. In my Ethics class I show them a video presentation from Tom Wright based on his After You Believe.

    Have you looked at James K.A. Smith’s cultural liturgies project? I’ll be using a nice summary presentation he did at Redeemer Pres in NYC in future classes.

  2. Don Yeager says:

    Would you say that the university teaches students to know good but not how to be good?

    • Don, outside of a relatively few students who take moral philosophy courses or something similar, I don’t think students are even exposed to thinking about what is good. “Good” is assumed in a variety of ways. It’s more likely students will be exposed to a set of terms like “social justice.” Social justice is, of course, a good that we should pursue, but the truth is, most social justice is aimed at values like equal access to good and services. Knowing the good is itself an idea that has almost entirely dropped out of view in the educational mission of most schools, confessional Christian or other religious schools excepted.

  3. Jon Altman says:

    Back in the “ancient past” (1977) when I was a college freshman, beer was legal for 18 year olds in Mississippi. The big “hot” controversy that year was whether there could be a “pub” on campus at Millsaps, which is not only “related” to the United Methodist Church, but actually “owned” by the Mississippi Conference. A UM clergy on the board fought the proposal hard (and won).
    It’s hard to imagine any current college student MORE “dedicated” to drinking than was my first semester roommate. He did leave school half way through that semester.

    • Thanks, Jon. I’m a 70s era college student, too (a little earlier than you) and I had friends who drank as hard as your roommate. The big difference between then and now is that the drink of choice is much harder than the beer our friends drank. In 5 years of college none of my partying friends had to go to the hospital because of alcohol poisoning. This has become a very common occurrence on campuses. Part of the problem, I believe, stems from the older legal drinking age. That’s a different argument, I know.

  4. My undergraduate degree is 1968. Totally different milieu than the ’70’s. The cultural/generational change that occurred with the pill, Viet Nam, God is Dead, etc. was incredible. I still remember my shock/consternation when, as a High School history teacher in 1971, the “F” word flowed from the lips of one of our cheerleaders as I chaperoned some event. I could not believe my ears.

    With regard to the idea of moral communities, I believe my moral community as a college student was totally peer-based. I settled in with mostly dorm rats who did not drink, date, or smoke (cigarettes). We were academically oriented: Out of my 8 or 10 closest friends, there are 3 surgeons, 2 Phd’s, 3 lawyers, a magician/car salesman; only 1 Viet Nam veteran, a lawyer now on disability for PTSD. I’m lucky in that regard, because I tend to be a people pleaser and follower. Had I fallen with a different group, the outcome would have been totally different. (I’m one of the lawyers, by the way. I did sell cars after I retreated from the practice of law in 2000, but the only magic I ever performed would be the slight of hand required in working for 25 years at a job I hated and for which I was temperamentally unsuited.)

    God bless you, Stephen, as you minister to these young persons. May the Lord continue to give you his Divine objectivity, so that you see these young men and women as He sees them.

    Probably the cultural phenomenon most responsible for the current “Party Culture” is the sexual revolution. Certainly the UMC was if not fixated, highly impacted by the sexual revolution, and intent of furthering the cause. UM ministers were extensively involved in the pro-abortion movement of the mid-late 1960’s, heavily influencing/empowering the “Clergy Coaltion” that referred college students to places where they could obtain legal abortions before Roe v. Wade. Our Board of Church and Society was instrumental, along with the Playboy Foundation, in the founding of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, now doing business as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights. I would imagine that many of the clergy types ministering on college campuses in the 1970’s and 1980’s were seminary students who were seeking refuge/respite from the draft and Viet Nam. No empirical evidence on this point.

    I would suspect, and I am so far removed from the campuses (high school or college) that I probably ought not opine, that the sexual revolution and the hook-up culture is the predominant “good” (????) around which the various “moral communities” on college campuses are organized. Again, this is just a guess.

    Query: On any given night, what percentage of students at any given college/university are “clubbing.”?

  5. Could you perhaps make the argument that Ayn Rand, or at least her philosophy, won out in the college sphere?

    • DH, the interpreters of modern culture that I read and trust the most (e.g. Charles Taylor) argue that the deed was done before Ayn Rand. It has taken a couple of hundred years of cultural practice at certain strands of Enlightenment thought, run through the sieve of Romanticism, that made subjective wellbeing the measure of all things. It’s an unstable combination of rationalism and romanticism. Happiness is based on freedom and freedom is based on individual autonomy and the only one who can judge is the individual looking inside her/his own heart. One might even criticize, to some degree, the unintended consequences of that part of the Pietist movement that contributes to a similar turn to the subjective.

      • I previously suggested that behind the Enlightenment, we can thank (or blame) aspects of the Reformation and behind that William of Occam.

        Why is it that we Methodists in our worship think we can ban the F-word (Father) and masculine personal pronouns, substituting “loving God,” “encircling God,” “whatever, whoever God,” and deceive ourselves into thinking our worship is still “christian?” I submit that worship language which in effect rejects the Trinity is not true worship. Our “moral communities” follow from our worshiping communities as night follows day.

        Richard Weaver, in IDEAS HAVE CONSEQUENCES, argues that man made an evil decision when we embraced nominalism — “our encounter with the witches on the heath.” Check out R.V. Young’s article on Romeo and Juliet, “Shakespeares Other Nominalists.”

        http://www.mmisi.org/ir/33_01/young.pdf

        • Although I, too, have concerns about the over-use of limiting Father references, I would not equate this practice to a denial of the Trinity. It is true, scripture reveals to us the First Person of the Trinity as the Father, and that is the final criterion. I interact with quite a few academics and pastors who enthusiastically uphold the Trinity as the central belief of the Christian faith, but they also limit their use of Father language. That said, we still use Father in the Lord’s prayer and in Trinitarian benedictions. This is not an entirely satisfactory answer – even to myself – but I think there is some need for nuance to your claim.

          I’ll take a look at the article you linked. Many thanks!

          • Nuance? Thanks, I needed that. My wife’s favorite description for me is “Narrow as a knife blade.” However:

            Are your friends who limit masculine references to the First Person at all concerned about the modalism in the current “doxology?” Most of the pastors I know who are quite comfortable with the F-word and who would never think of denying the Trinity get a blank look on their faces when I suggest that God, Jesus, Spirit, though probably preferable to “creator, redeemer, sustainer,” is not a Trinitarian formula. The Senior at my church 15+ years ago used a communion service that omitted the Great Thanksgiving. When I asked him about it, he responded: “Do you really think God needs us to tell God what God has already done?”

            How can we engage in corporate worship, or talk about moral communities, in a culture in which nothing means anything? Where conversation is a shell game with the pea in everybody’s pocket?

  6. I stopped reading about ethics with Paul Ramsey in the early 1970’s. At some point, I became concerned with doing the right thing rather than talking about the right thing. So, I truthfully am at a loss to respond to your questions meaningfully. Two points recur as I think about the situation you posit.

    The first is the need for Evangelization. Before a man can be concerned with pursuing the good, he must have encountered the good One. This is what I think I was hinting at when I chased the worship rabbit. Culture issues from cult. You correctly point out that our institutions are organized around our worship: Autonomy is our god, hedonism is the form of our worship. The party culture is really this generation’s cry for help. The hope for any lost community (even a modern University) is contagious counter sub-culture committed to the one true God that by its holiness judges the corruption of the world. To the extent that our churches accommodate our pagan culture, we drop the ball. Christians are ineffective witness to the pagan culture because they don’t know the God they profess to worship.

    With respect to the “moral community” way of viewing the party culture, I’m interested that you put “the good” in bold face instead of putting “good” in quotes. You are obviously not talking about the good as a universal, but rather the “good.” So, do we treat SS troopers rounding up all the Jews of a particular village for extermination as a moral community with shared notions of the good (their common objective I guess) and a set of behaviors, mores, and the like to hone and perfect the attainment of their good? What is gained by that analysis?

    Which brings me back to Evangelization. Jesus, high and lifted up, is still the only hope.

    • I don’t know if the SS Troopers philosophically thought through that they were aiming at a good that their Nazi world view upheld, but I do think it was a moral vision. In this case, it was an immoral vision, but that is the back side of morality.

      One of my worries about the higher education environment is that we have generally lost the ability, it seems, to recognize moral claims as such. So much is assumed without examination any more. We have traded any sort of talk about moral goods for terms like “ethics” and “social justice.” This language follows from the view that “morality” basically covers private matters that should be protected from the leering, peering eyes of moralists. Thus, the term “social justice” aims as what proponents consider a public good that supersedes the private goods that “moral” views typically address, like what people do in their bedrooms or how they spend their money.

      • jwlung says:

        Re: the SS point. I have a problem seeing how a mode of enquiry that doesn’t posit some objective standard for right and wrong could possibly help one minister to the party culture. I know that this raises the problem of rules, but doesn’t the premise that binge drinking, recreational sex, and the rest may not be the most productive way for students to order their free time impose or suggest a rule, or at least a binding judgment that sensate pleasure and absoloute autonomy are not a permissible “good” for human beings to pursue?

        Your point about our inability to talk about right and wrong is spot on. C. S. Lewis calls it the poison of subjectivism. We don’t know what the right thing to do is, so we set up procedures and assume so long as the procedures are followed, we have to be satisfied with the result. When I began the practice of law, there were Canons of Ethics, twelve, I think. Now lawyers are governed by the “Rules of Professional Conduct.” Legion in number, the rules set up road signs that we need to follow to cover our asses and not get sued. Thomas Schaeffer wrote a great book in the 1970’s critiquing the process and offerring an alternative based essentially on a biblical understanding of the nature of the human person. Everything now is process. I’m sure that ministers, doctors, educators, all the former “professions” have sufferred the same change.

        Of course, the dichotomies ordering our lives together now (public/private, personal/social, fact/value, sectarian/secular) are incoherent and destructive. I don’t know how reality can be restored.

        Blessings.

  7. Jerry G Putnam says:

    I wonder how you would differentiate between moral, amoral and immoral? I understand your argument related to the shared community “good”, but what makes the subjective naming of the shared value a “good”?
    Can a distructive behavior truly be a “good” or is it perhaps either immoral or amoral?

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