(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.)
One 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.
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?