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MIT staff blogger Matt McGann '00

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

33 responses to “Alcohol in College: Scotland and the US”

  1. Paul says:

    Woo! Great article, Grace, you’re awesome. smile

  2. Steven '12 says:

    Huh, interesting article. Though, she should realize not everyone in America is as amazing as MIT students.

  3. Piper says:

    Really interesting and well written, Grace. I think you have an awesome point here =).

  4. lulu says:

    Not everyone at MIT is as amazing as her friends, either. At least not as substance-free. Pretty good article though.

  5. Meagan says:

    I come from a town in RI that has a huge underage drinking problem. In fact, the last three graduating classes from my high school have all lost students due to alcohol-related fatalities. I wish everyone around here had the opportunity to develop her attitude towards drinking.

  6. Alcoholism. The last line of Defense.

  7. Zaira '11 says:

    Thank you, Megan. I wish more people would come to this realization, even here at MIT.

  8. Zaira '11 says:

    I meant to say “thank you, Grace,” but I agree with you Meagan.

  9. milena '11 says:

    That’s a very well written article, and I can completely relate. I grew up in a place where the drinking age is 18, and people start drinking well before their 18th birthday, so it was a HUGE change for me to go to Boston and not be able to get a beer during hot days, or ordering wine with my dinner. But once you get over that and find things to do that do not involve going out to bars and drinking, it’s not so bad grin

  10. Lulu says:

    Thank you for an amazing, well thought out entry smile

  11. If possible, could I send you our true story, of how we basically ALLOWED Alcohol to destroy our health ?
    Please let me know.
    Many thanks.
    /sjg

  12. KelseyK says:

    Very interesting article and perspective. I can see both sides of the argument and there are certainly positives and negatives to both…

    I really laughed when I saw this posted – I’m in Ireland right now and I was just in Scotland yesterday. It really is a different attitude toward alcohol here…

  13. Snively says:

    @Alexander
    “And the author’s perspective is just one person’s perspective, so if you publish it on the MIT Admissions web page then feel obliged to publish the counterargument as well.”

    Don’t tell people how to feel or what to do, it’s rude.

  14. BRUTE says:

    Very well written article…you’ve got talent, but you might want to do more research on binge drinking in America..Pandora’s Box has been open for awhile.

  15. Alexander says:

    Nonsense. I have this really neat and nice argument why the drinking age limit should be 18 rather than 21, but unfortunately it won’t fit on this page. So just take my conclusion: drinking age limit of 21 is complete nonsense. Nonsense. Nonsense. Nonsense. And the author’s perspective is just one person’s perspective, so if you publish it on the MIT Admissions web page then feel obliged to publish the counterargument as well.

  16. Omar '12 says:

    Haha, I always forget how different certain customs can be in countries. Very good read grin

  17. current '11 says:

    Snively, your optimism sickens me. The point of the blogs isn’t to sugarcoat the truth. Fact of the matter is, if you spent ANY time at all at night ANYWHERE on campus — Baker, FSILGs, Senior House, EC, it doesn’t matter — ANYWHERE — you will find plenty of people drinking.

    No, I don’t drink. Yes, I have plenty of fun at MIT without drinking. But the fact of the matter is that like at any other college in the world, drinking is a part of student life, and it’s best to learn to deal with it.

    Don’t tell people what they can or cannot say. It’s constructive criticism from a blog reader.

    By the way, I realize that these blogs cannot condone alcoholism. It may be worth it to at least MENTION that people AT MIT DO DRINK. It may actually help increase our yield %, believe it or not…

  18. Jeremy says:

    I never would have thought that American drinking trends would be looked up at by foreigners. Great post, great article.

  19. Laura says:

    Eh. I’ve never been to Scotland, so I won’t pretend to be able to comment on that…but MIT students are NOT your average American under-21s. Th people I grew up with are certainly not represented in the above article. In fact, the few weeks I’ve spent in Spain so far have really opened my eyes even further to how absolutely ridiculous the US attitude towards alcohol is. Alcohol is SO much more prevalent here- easier to come by, out in the open, etc, but I have seen SO many fewer of the “falling down drunk” types. The most out of control drunks I have seen have been American women on vacation (in a pub which caters to American tourists). My Spanish friends took me and a couple of other Americans there. When we left, two of us jokingly told our Spanish friends that we were insulted that they thought we might like that place because we would be around other Americans. Honestly, we were trying to gloss over how truly embarrassed we were by their behavior.
    So yeah, I think the drinking age should be 21, but unfortunately our problem is much bigger than that, it’s about the attitude we have towards alcohol.

  20. Li'12 says:

    Thanks for posting this article! It was a really interesting read =)

  21. anon says:

    wow, I never knew MIT was a puritan school …..

  22. Saket says:

    Nice read…. I always thought Americans drink a lot.perhaps I was wrong……
    Anyways let me introduce myself, Im saket Jain from India and I’ll be applying to MIT this October for the session of 2009.

    Back to the alcohol point…..I don’t see any difference in lowering the age-bar.Admittedly, fewer people would drink, but those who like to would find their means anyways(Pssst….. is there anyone who doesn’t like alcohol because they don’t like it’s taste or am I the only one here who doesn’t like alcohol???)

  23. Yasha says:

    This seems to me a very limited perspective. First, I would say underaged drinking is much more prevalent here than the author would suggest. Moreover, I don’t necessarily believe that were the author able to drink here, she wouldn’t have pursued the same activities. Obviously I have never have been to college in Scotland, but in my experience here, the people that drink to the excess are people that weren’t doing really thrilling things anyways, and plenty of people drink occasionally and are still very interesting and driven and, for all intents and purposes, worthwhile. That is, the decisions people make about alcohol are merely continuations of a greater trend, and the availability of alcohol is not the deciding factor in their lives.

  24. A Short Note From the Author

    Um…wow. I’m on Matt McGann’s blog, awesome smile

    I’m still amazed as to how a half-page article in a British paper made it to the MIT admission blogs. The Sunday Times should be paying me extra for the extended readership. Or not…

    In any case, I’m glad this has sparked, um, friendly debate(?). That is, after all, the point of the Comment&Opinion; section of newspapers. Not, I hasten to add, to provide balanced and unbiased articles based on years of detailed research. That’s what the features section is for, and grad students.

    I guess I should include a few disclaimers…*clears throat* yes, it’s biased, yes, MIT is not an accurate representation of America, and no, this article does not represent the views of anyone whose views it does not represent. Exaggeration and rhetoric were employed. The intricacies of the Scottish/American drinking culture – and even my own full opinions on the subject – can’t be summed up in a 1000-word article without making it dull as dishwater. Sorry.

    However, I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, so forget I said that, kids, and flame to your heart’s content.

    I would like, however, to answer the people protesting about the actual drinking culture at MIT and the unpuritanical nature thereof; you are correct. The things you are saying are true. But remember, the article was about comparing two countries. Take your experience with MIT+drinking, then consider the fact that I was astounded by how little I perceived people drank when I first got there…and you have some idea what Scotland is like. I did research binge-drinking in the US (albiet, I admit, not exactly to a thesis level…) – but even with that, we Britons as a whole drink a lot more. Like, a LOT more. And it’s a problem. The reason this may not have come out in the article is that it’s intended audience (the Times-reading people of Britain) know fine well about their own drinking habits. Across the pond, I realise, it may be read differently…

    Of course, I’m not now turning coat and claiming MIT is just a big bunch of alcoholics. I guess take that as “even though MIT students are definitely not teetotal, they still do many fantastic things that do not involve sitting around drinking. Unlike in Glasgow, drink is not the axis around which life revolves. Cuz MIT’s awesome like that” or something similar. And MIT
    is indeed awesome like that. Scotland, incidentally, is also awesome, don’t get me wrong. Just – if you’re attempting rail travel on a saturday night, don’t forget your elbow pads.

    Anyway, I’m off to the pub. See you Americans later. :p

    Grace Kane

  25. erik says:

    This was a really interesting read!

  26. Barbara says:

    haha good article, funny, too! very interesting to see a scottish point of view.

  27. Amit says:

    Hey I am a newbie and i know nothing as yet(which is why I am posting this question here!),
    but I would Like to join MIt in session 2009 I would like to know the syllabus for SAt i have tried out the web but nothing worthwile if there is no syllbus can sumone plz tell me how it works?

  28. madmatt says:

    Please, this is not the place for personal attacks. Some comments have been removed for attacking people rather than ideas. Having to police personal attacks makes my night of catching up on BSG on Tivo less pleasant. Keep it civil, thanks!

  29. m says:

    Very good read!
    As to all of those who feel personally offended by the imperfect representation of American attitudes towards drinking, you should consider that it’s a personal article about Grace’s perceptions of the differences across the pond. If The Sunday Times had wanted a research paper, I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t have used a 1000 word essay.

  30. m says:

    Additionally, I wasn’t aware that the MIT blogs had to be politically correct. There’s nothing wrong with supporting the achievements of an MIT student, and Matt didn’t say anything advocating Grace’s views in his preface to the article.
    Just because someone brings up an interesting piece of writing does not mean that they support it fanatically.

  31. saket says:

    Fairly put,

    It is an essay about someone’s perceptions and not a thesis on America’s drinking habits.And even if it were you shouldn’t take it seriously(though god knows what moron would go up and really do a thesis on how much people from various cultures drink….I mean there are other worthwhile options….like checking to see if Bush has a brain or not.)

    My personal apologies to those offended bny the Bush remark,but i seriously detest what Bush did in Iraq.

  32. AngryLemming says:

    It’s been some years since I’ve become “legal” in the realm of alcohol and the retrospective of intellectuals tends toward the conservative, but: I do think that Grace has a point. I enjoyed the drinking age in Rome for a semester, but while I endured the grueling nature of my Alma Mater there, many of my more “Americanized” classmates fell short of the bar. If a lessening of the American restrictions were to be put in effect (say, dropping the age to 18), I think there would be a drop in alcoholism in Americans in general.
    While the argument that no restriction is ridiculous to my mind, a lack of restriction within a homestead would perhaps do the “trick”. My family is first generation American and wine was presented to me as a child (whether I liked it or not) with dinner since I was… I can’t remember when it wasn’t. Thus, I think that drinking, like many things, ought to be incorporated into the lifestyle of Americans and not left to what it has become for many: a sought after secret event. The milieu of total prohibition is not conducive to the people we should wish to meet at college. Further, total abandon doesn’t work either, as the conditions I found in London made present to me. The essential problem is one brought up by a previous poster: one of exacerbating a pre-existing condition. Alcohol is often more of an excuse then an agent in the things people do to one-another.
    A very well done article, your perspective ought to be more gilded with nuance for my tastes, but that is a different audience entirely. Good job, Grace.
    For those who might view me as a teetotaler: I’ve already had two glasses of Grande Absente (this is the end of my day) and plan on a third while I peruse Engaget’s latest additions to my RSS feed.
    Props to RawSolar, while we’re at it. Good luck.

  33. Alexander says:

    @Author:

    I’m from Germany (where it’s legal to drink beer at the age of 16) and am currently studying in the UK. Yes, it’s true that the brits drink A LOT. But that’s not due to the drinking age limit, that’s just the brits. There are many other countries, like Germany, France, Spain, where people DO drink, but most of them are somewhat responsible (once they know their limits). I guess both the US and the UK are extremes.