Alcohol in College: Scotland and the US by Matt McGann '00
An MIT student from Scotland compares alcohol culture in the US and the UK in The Times of London.
In today’s The Sunday Times, one of the United Kingdom’s most respected newspapers, rising MIT sophomore Grace Kane ’11, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, authors an article commenting on alcohol culture in the US and her homeland.
The reason for the commentary is a proposal to clamp down on binge drinking in Scotland by people under the age of 21, though the legal drinking age is 18. You can read about it here, but the basic story is:
Proposals to tackle Scotland’s binge-drinking culture have been announced by the Scottish Government. The plan would see anyone under the age of 21 banned from buying alcohol in off-licences and set a minimum price at which a unit of alcohol can be sold. The consultation document also proposes ending some cheap drink promotions and making some retailers help pay for the consequences of alcohol abuse.
Grace’s article is a great read, and not only because it is fun to see British terms like “Freshers week.” It is very interesting to see the American (and MIT) college social life from a different perspective. Check it out:
From The Sunday Times
June 22, 2008
What the Americans can teach the Scots about drinking
Grace Kane ’11
Freshers week means just one thing for most first-year students — a big, happy cloud of collective inebriation. I was one of those new students last September, but while my former school friends enjoyed discount vodka shots in the union bars of Britain, I was 2,000 miles away, building a robot.
I was in the middle of “freshman orientation week” at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, in a country where the legal drinking age is 21. It was a culture shock. How would a bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds — particularly MIT’s infamously geeky crop of scientists and engineers — socialise with strangers without the help of alcohol? I had visions of sober and awkward all-American activities.
Although sober, orientation week was not awkward in the least. We went sailing, toured the city, took a trip to Cape Cod, ate our weight in free food and got to raid one of the labs to build submarine robots from spare parts. I had fun and made friends that will last through college. All without the help of so much as half a bottle of Bud.
So I am not one of the young Scots protesting about “demonisation” in response to proposals to stop us binge-drinking. Under the plans, alcohol will no longer be sold to under-21s in off-licences and supermarkets.
There have been warnings that the measure will be extended to pubs and clubs, as in the US, forcing us all to abstain or break the law. Ross Finnie, a Liberal Democrat MSP, has written to every student union in the land warning of dark, dry days ahead. The Tories have joined Finnie and the drinks industry in wailing disapproval.
In my experience, however, raising the legal age to 21 has many merits. America isn’t filled with teetotal, bored young people. It’s full of young people who have other things to do.
I was sceptical at first and slightly disappointed to celebrate my 18th birthday last September with cake and soda. But as my first year passed, I noticed that I seemed to have more money than my friends back home, even though we were on the same tight budget. I also had more free time, even though I had more coursework.
Young people in America play more sports than here, and not just the “jock” types. Everyone has a hobby or talent — from fairly typical ones such as sailing, theatre and music, to extremes like skydiving and fire-breathing.
A few undergraduates I know have already started their own businesses. At MIT a great deal of energy goes into complex practical jokes, called hacks, such as putting a life-size fire engine on the main building’s famous dome.
Too many students in Scotland, on the other hand, just go to the pub.
It sounds like the old stereotype: American enthusiasm versus British apathy. But people in the US do seem to care more about life. Perhaps this is because they spend their free time doing stuff they love, rather than using it to forget about the rest of the week.
Of course, young Americans break the law and drink underage. But it’s much harder than it is at home. Teenagers in Scotland can get hold of booze so long as they have a tall, stubbly 14-year-old friend with a vaguely convincing ID card. In Boston, you need to find someone over 21 to go to a liquor store and present a Massachusetts drivers’ licence. Given the general disapproval of underage drinking, not many adults will do this.
In this climate, drinking is regarded more as an occasional treat. American students will go several weeks drink-free between dorm parties, or will store beer in their cube fridges for a particularly bad day.
The longer I lived in Boston, the more I realised my attitudes towards alcohol were a bit odd. American students were aghast when I told what I thought were unremarkable stories of elbowing my way through walls of drunks in a Glasgow railway station on Saturday evenings. “But it wasn’t that bad,” I’d reassure my horrified audience. “Only a few people were vomiting in the street and most of them were still walking upright.”
In America lots of people will announce, “I don’t drink”, with pride. This is not to say that everyone in the US approves of the legal drinking age. A minority favour liberalisation and argue that young people would drink more responsibly if it was out in the open. They point to cases such as that of Scott Krueger, an MIT student who died of alcohol poisoning weeks after arriving at college.
Schools in America have poor alcohol-awareness education, with many teaching only abstinence. Some young people drink themselves to death through sheer ignorance as soon as they get their hands on spirits.
Yet despite these isolated tragedies, Americans are generally more careful about where, when and how much they imbibe. Scots, and Britons generally, do themselves more damage despite having responsible drinking messages drilled into them at school.
Eventually I curbed my frustration at having to walk past Boston’s Irish bars unable to go inside for a Guinness. I stopped envying pub-crawling friends back home and started to feel I had the better deal. It helps that drink here is more expensive. I can take a day trip to New York City for the price of a bottle of Jack Daniel’s — it’s a no-brainer as to how I’d rather spend my Sunday.
I go to see bands completely sober and enjoy them all the more. I’ve picked up random skills, such as Chinese juggling and how to construct theatre sets. More importantly, I passed courses such as multivariable calculus and relativistic electromagnetism. I had, in retrospect, a much better first year than if I was freely allowed to drink.
So I say to the under-21s in Scotland: don’t be too scared of a drinking ban, even one that goes “all the way”. You might save money, go to new places, find out what Sunday mornings look like. Or at least, get something more out of the next few years than a million drunken photos on Facebook and a slightly degraded liver.
Grace Kane from Glasgow is studying mechanical and ocean engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology