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Alcohol, Education, and Honesty

It is the position of The Tech that MIT should advocate lowering the drinking age to 18. The current age of 21 inhibits MIT's educational mission and inappropriately restricts the rights of citizens who have otherwise reached the age of majority. MIT should adopt this position and take reasonable steps to bring about a change in the law.

MIT is in a unique position to make this point. Of all organizations, the Institute has had reason to study the issue. The death of a member of our community has focused the debate like nothing else could. We have found alcohol polices on campus to be ineffective.

These policies are fatally hampered by the 21-year-old drinking age. The drinking age arbitrarily divides the undergraduates, fracturing the MIT community. It hinders interaction between undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. These artificial divisions are extremely difficult for administrators and students to respect. It is time for the Institute publicly to acknowledge reality.

MIT has taken such political positions before. When government policies have interfered with its mission, MIT has not hesitated to make its voice heard. When the Department of Defense systematically expelled gays from the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, the community acted. Students, faculty, and administrators united and made their point clearly and forcefully. While the drinking age issue is less weighty, that does not make it irrelevant. It is time for MIT to make a similar stand on the issue of drinking age.

Clearly, a higher drinking age does not prevent alcohol-related deaths and injuries. Unfortunately, no policy can; we can only seek to minimize the risk. The only way that these events can be contained is through education. MIT is currently required by federal law to enforce actively the drinking age. Real education about alcohol, however, cannot be taught in a classroom. The best educator about alcohol is experience.

MIT is a community of people of many ages. The current law essentially prohibits older members with wisdom about the correct use of alcohol from imparting it to undergraduates. A real education system would let these different groups drink together and learn. A subdued dinner with faculty members is a benign and even healthy way to see alcohol used, not abused. As it is, the undergraduates learn about alcohol while behind a closed dorm room door.

This is the key problem with the current adversarial system. Significant parts of student life are forced underground and kept separate from the rest of the community. This is not a healthy situation. To continue the open learning process that MIT so earnestly believes in, it has to work to integrate every part of people's lives - social as well as academic.

Everyone -from faculty members to students to administrators - could do their jobs more effectively if the drinking age were lower. Alcohol discussions thus far have consisted of local and national politicians virtuously calling for "zero-tolerance"alcohol policies. These rantings get us nowhere. There needs to be an honest assessment of the effect of criminalizing alcohol. Administrators should not fall in line with these politicians. Allowing the debate to be limited by political pressure is contrary to MIT's role as an institution of higher learning.

MIT is trapped in a Catch-22. There is no way to create effective alcohol education on this campus without incorporating all members of the community, but that would be against the law. The result is that irresponsible drinking continues. The only way for MIT to end this contradiction is to state publicly that our campus would benefit from a lower drinking age.