Sunday, October 7, 2012

As the Way of Youth Is? Boorish Student Behavior Through the Lens of History

Historical Student Life: The Devil and Drink
detail from "Faust and Mephistopheles in the Tavern" (London: Boosey and Sons, 1820)

Down the broad road do I run
  As the way of youth is;
Snare myself in sin, and ne'er
  Think where faith and truth is;
Eager far for pleasure more
 Than soul's health, the sooth is,
For this flesh of mine I care,
 Seek not ruth where ruth is.

from "The Confession of Golias," No. 5
(medieval student song)

Booze and Brazenness

As the previous post makes clear, boorish (generally: drunken) student behavior has become a real and even critical problem in our town. A while back, in "Stripping, vomiting, and drinking themselves unconscious," I pondered the fact that Amherst seems to face such challenges in this regard, whereas others, with far larger student gatherings and far more lenient liquor laws, are evidently better able to cope. Savannah, which allows open containers of alcohol in public, hosted a million visitors (including thousands of students on spring break) essentially without incident for Saint Patrick's Day.

I said: pondered. I came up with no answers. All I could do was to observe that the problem was to some extent cultural. I am all too aware that such arguments can be problematic in certain contexts, either putting the blame in the wrong place or refusing to place it at all. Still, I think it quite legitimate here, in the sense that it comes down to what the offenders think they are entitled to do and where the community establishes red lines.  This is also why I wanted, in the last post, to insist that the many conversations between Town and University were not just window-dressing or wasting time, and rather, part of a serious attempt to articulate enforceable community norms.

As the Bulletin put it last week:
Part of the problem is that UMass students are growing up in "a more aggressive drinking culture" in which alcohol is glorified, said Tony Maroulis, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. . . . "Officers say they've never seen such brazenness, with young people making no attempt to hide beer while walking down the street, he [Police Captain Christopher] said.
Students will always drink, legally or illegally. Some will always drink too much. The Town has the right to enforce the law against both illegal underage drinking and illegal behavior by drinkers of legal age.

In the course of my "drinking and vomiting"  post, I also described the extremely heavy drinking that was typical of early American culture, from politicians to clergy to the ordinary folks.

Town, Gown, and Turmoil

Herewith, then, a few further examples drawn from history, just for the sake of a comparative perspective.

Students both long exercised a great deal more power and wrought a great deal more havoc than they do here and now. As I noted in a post last year, students in the Middle Ages in effect were "the university"—an organization or interest group comprising these fee-paying learners, mostly in minor clerical orders (the origins of town and "gown"), rather than faculty and facilities. Accordingly, the students defined the curriculum and monitored faculty behavior, and even set local prices and rents, and generally regulated town-gown relations.

Wouldn't our Town Meeting and landlords just love that?

In the Middle Ages, and beyond (especially in the period of decline of the decline of the universities in the 17th and 18th centuries), students were often decried as hell-raisers.

In 1784, the Prussian educator Friedrich Gedicke praised the University of Göttingen for "attracting students who are more civilized than those at other universities," though he admitted that, if "the crude and wild behavior so often present at other universities is much less evident here," it was because "Here, immorality is masked by a veil of fine manners": "The student here does not frequent beer halls but gets drunk on wine in his room all the more often."
By the way, even raw excesses are not altogether lacking. During the few days that I was there, several drunken students attacked a girl in the street and then pursued her to her home where they mistreated here to the point that her very life was in danger. [1]
Small wonder, then, that as James Sheehan writes:
After reading a few descriptions of student life in the eighteenth century, one has no difficulty understanding why many families were reluctant to send their sons to a university. Drinking, duelling, and rowdiness were the rule in many places; students were legendary for their eccentric dress, loose morals, and irresponsible behaviour. Any effort to impose discipline was hampered by the fact that universities were eager to defend their boundaries against intrusions from the outside, and were often willing to sacrifice new opportunities rather than endanger old privileges. The endemic conflicts between town and gown—as well as the pitched battles occasionally fought between students and apprentices—were the natural result of the tensions created by autonomous institutions coexisting within the same enclosed space. [2]
In nineteenth-century Amherst, students may have avoided the worst excesses of their forebears and European counterparts, but they were hardly tame. In 1886, the town exploded in joy when Amherst College beat rival Yale in a baseball game. The president of Massachusetts Agricultural College lent his fellow institution of higher learning a cannon, and when his own students stole some of the parts, he rushed to find new ones so that the noisome revelry could take place. In the words of former Jones Library head of Special Collections Daniel Lombardo: "Round after round of blanks were fired from the cannon, as a huge bonfire lit the center of town. . .  Fireworks added to the 'indescribably hideous racket.'"

He describes a complaining letter by a resident to the Amherst Record:
The bonfire and horns were acceptable but he drew the line at cannon firing. 'We were compelled to have our nerves torn to pieces by the senseless whim of a few boys' who sought to 'torture those hopeless citizens who happen to live near the village common.' He compared the boys to savages...
Another baseball victory in 1892 brought even greater mayhem, serving as a release for what Lombardo calls weeks of "tension . . . as the townspeople grew impatient with the general rowdiness of students."

There was the customary bonfire, assembled, in the Record's description, in a manner "characteristic of Sherman's foragers." Presumably drunken antics, it turned out, included vandalism of a local store. It got worse. Late that night students assembled at the hated sheriff's house and (again in the words of the newspaper) "indulged in a noisy serenade." As Lombardo relates:
This serenading mob began to throw stones at the house and to hurl insults at the sheriff's wife and daughters. The latter act pushed the sheriff's patience to the limit and he burst forth from the house armed with his revolver and fired a shot into the air.
Charged with disturbing the peace and assaulting the sheriff, students sent an anonymous letter to the paper, "couched, " the Record said, "in the most filthy and indecent language," threatening to burn down his house. Only after eight students pleaded guilty did the situation calm down. [3]

Sound familiar?

On the bright side, at least we have not yet reached the stage of murderous threats.

Butt-Chugging and Social Norming

Still, not all is progress. Inside Higher Ed reports on a possible new fad of “butt-chugging,” in which students take an "alcohol enema." (I know: yuck.) Evidently "Popularized by a scene in one of the 'Jackass' movies," it's potentially highly dangerous or even fatal, as well as highly unappetizing. According to the publication, however, "experts say it’s not too surprising, nor is it any more alarming than other binge-drinking behaviors," and they warn that over-reacting may inadvertently encourage the practice by publicizing it. As the Chair of the American College Health Association’s Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drug Coalition put it in unhelpfully obtuse jargon and just bad English (is it any wonder no one listens to these folks?):
Alcohol consumption among college students at a high level is not surprising. They’re always trying to dodge appropriate alcohol metabolism… College students that have the invincibility factor may be willing to try and experiment with different modes and amounts of administration. 
Admittedly, when a Dean of Students at Marlboro College asked his students about butt-chugging, "most of them 'scoffed and rolled their eyes.' They said, ‘You have to be an idiot to even contemplate that.’ ”

As we've seen here, though, there are plenty of ways to be an idiot when you consume too much alcohol the old-fashioned way.

According to the article, one approach that experts recommend as having shown some results is so-called "social norming" in which, in the words of the Director of Alcohol Abuse and Impaired Driving Prevention Initiatives for the BACCHUS Network, "students are given real statistics on drinking in their community to demonstrate that most of their peers don’t engage in risky drinking behavior."

That's part of what I meant about changing the culture. In the old days, excessive drinking was the norm; today it is not. Demonstrate that the really bad behavior is marginal—and marginalize those who engage in it.

Not surprisingly, then, things were a lot worse in the olden days, and there's a lot worse to be found in many places today. None of this is to downplay our problems—but as we contemplate how to address them, it's useful to know where we fit on the scale, past and present.

* * *

[1] Robert and Elborg Forster, eds., European Society in the Eighteenth Century (NY, 1969), 319-20.
[2] James Sheehan, German History 1770-1866 (Oxford, 1989), 137.
[3] Daniel Lombardo, A Hedge Away: The Other Side of Emily Dickinson's Amherst (Northampton, 1997), 79-82.

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