Freshman Drinking and Coming of Age Rituals

Every society has coming of age rituals, and institutions where they occur.  Each society nees to figure out how to transfer rights and responsibilities from anxious adults, to their children. This requires adults to surrender some of their authority, and youth to take up some responsibility. This is often a process fraught with dangers, and every society handles it differently. The view from here in Germany is that the United States seems to focus disproportionately on the use of alcohol by youth. The American drinking age is typically 21, which is higher than other countries. And more so than elsewhere, alcohol (mis)use in the United States by youth is criminalized. In contrast, the drinking age here in Germany is 16, and that is seemingly rarely enforced. I have never heard of my German students being arrested for possession of alcohol, even though they do occasionally get drunk. In the United States my students are bombarded with zero tolerance threats beginning with they are about 12, and “minor in possession (MIP) tickets” shortly thereafter.

Chico State provides a good example of how anxiety about alcohol and coming of age is acted out in the United States. I teach at Chico State, which has been wrestling with its “party school” image for as long as I can remember. Accordingly, alcohol is banned on campus, and suffice it to say that the administration hates the image, the first year students seem inevitably to embrace it, and older and wiser alumni are never quite sure what to think. What this means is that every Fall, the administration huffs and puffs about the dangers of drinking, and posts photos of students who have died in previous years as a result of alcohol abuses of various kinds. The police issue fistful of tickets for “Minors in Possession” (MIP), and a few are inevitably arrested in the context of alcohol induced fights, sexual assaults, fraternity hazings, and so forth. A few are also hurt, often badly, in the context of drinking and driving.

As for the new students they compare statistics from dorm floors about who has the most MIPs, and swap stories of stomach pumping drama, and how to game the mandatory alcohol abuse classes they are sentenced to attend. The good news in all this is that by the time that I get students they are usually juniors or seniors, and have passed beyond this stage of social development, by “learning” to drink with some level of responsibility.

Anthropologists describe such shenanigans as a coming of age rituals. Meaning they are the sort of thing which while not necessarily desirable, nevertheless happen as authority transfers across generations. The danger, drama, and confrontation between students and administration are part of such rituals and perhaps necessary in the larger context of things. Most youth pass through them without anything more than a couple of bad hangovers, which years later as alumni and parents they typically remember with some bemusement. Except of course when there own children are involved, and they in turn will huff and puff just as aggressively as the administration at Chico State does today.

Germany has its coming of age rituals, too, but excessive drinking is not one typically associated with first year college students., The drinking age here is 16 for beer, and 18 for the hard stuff. Also, the first year German college student tends to be older than their American counterpart. German students do not graduate from the equivalent of high school until they are about 19, after which males are required to do a year of military or civil service. This pushes the age of first year students at the university up to 19 or 20, years beyond when they are first able to drink legally. One result—serious students not focused on sneaking their first drink. Indeed, beer and wine are even common at official student events.

So the anthropologists ask where is the coming of age ritual for alcohol abuse? After all the Germans do not drink less than Americans, at least in the big picture. The answer is that the abusive drinking associated with first year college students is found in the secondary schools of Germany—meaning it is associated with youth who are about 16. Before American parents cry about the lost innocence of youth, it is perhaps worthwhile to reflect on other elements of the German coming of age drinking culture. For what it is worth, there is some advantage to this, since such youth are still typically living at home whre they sleep it off under the disgruntled eye of a parent, and more importantly perhaps, none of the can drive—the minimum age for a driver’s license is 18. In other words, most first time drivers are already experienced drinkers.

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