Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Binge drinking and hooking up as policy problems

Binge drinking and hooking up as policy problems
Paul Adams | 25 Oct 2010 |

One challenge of teaching social policy is that students—social work students anyway—too often mistake advocacy for analysis, opinion for fact. It makes it hard to conduct a serious analysis of a problem and the best ways to address it if you smuggle your preferred solution into the way you define the problem. The problem is lack of resources or services, the intervention is to provide more, and the criterion for evaluating success is whether more were provided—omitting the rather key question of whether the resources or services made any difference to whatever social problem they were supposed to address. Too often the inquiry becomes pro forma because the “analyst” has decided on the preferred policy approach before doing any analysis. (This problem, unfortunately is by no means limited to students.)

Elizabeth Marquardt’s essay on “Bacchanalia Unbound” in the current issue of First Things is refreshing in this respect. Not that she lacks opinions on the toxicity of the environment that many young college students enter when they start their undergraduate education. She addresses problems like binge drinking and hooking up that many students and progressive faculty do not even see as a problem, or at least not different from universal and timeless student behavior. But though the essay is far from being a formal policy analysis, Marquardt entertains real alternatives, some of which are compelling but counter-intuitive.

On the problem of binge drinking of college students, for example, the problem of how to reduce it elicits two opposed strategies. One is from a group of college presidents, under the name of the Amethyst Initiative, which wants to lower the drinking age on the grounds that the current high minimum age of 21 encourages binge drinking (as happened in England and Australia when they had strictly limited pub hours). Here we have college presidents taking the view associated with leftist academic sociologists of deviancy of past decades who saw the roots of deviant behavior in social control. (If people didn’t condemn it, it wouldn’t be deviant. The way to reduce the incidence of drug-related crime is to decriminalize drug use.)

As Marquardt suggests, there is much to commend this approach, but also a big obstacle in this context—boys and cars. The other policy approach, favoring the high minimum drinking age and supported by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), fiercely opposes the college presidents on the grounds that the present high minimum age reduces traffic fatalities.

And then there is the stricter college rules and enforcement approach--no alcohol at fraternity or sorority parties at which freshmen are present.

The other topic is the (linked but distinct) practice of "hooking up," which is arguably much more harmful than commonly recognized--disproportionately harming young women; encouraging male irresponsibility, selfishness, and lack of empathy or love; degrading human sexuality into a less than fully human activity that engages the whole person; and undermining marriage and family by detaching love and commitment from sex; and so forth.

Again, there are interestingly different approaches to addressing the problem, from denying that it is a problem at all; to tightening up on university rules for underage drinking, dorm room visiting, social events, and so on; to encouraging a return to earlier marriage (and so to dating as a more serious matter involving a potential spouse rather than casual sex for the next ten years as a substitute for dating). As Marquardt observes, this last approach would be a hard sell to parents, who themselves want to see their kids’ ever more expensive college education completed without being sidetracked by marriage. But for a case for earlier marriage, see this link.

Both would be interesting and less well-trodden paths for a policy analysis paper than more common, but not unimportant social welfare topics such as how to reduce homelessness among people with severe and persistent mental illness. Both student binge drinking and hooking up elicit intriguing and non-obvious options, and can be adapted to other populations of young people. Both begin in high school. Leonard Sax's book, Why Gender Matters, has a very depressing chapter on hooking up in high school. And then there's Tom Wolfe's powerful novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons.

Retrieved October 25, 2010 from http://www.mercatornet.com/family_edge/view/8169/

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