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The Sound of Silence

Complacency of Students Leave Them Vulnerable to Whims of State

Eric J. Plosky

If you’re thinking of celebrating your 21st birthday with a beer, don’t plan to go to a Bruins or Celtics game. Unless you have a Massachusetts driver’s license or liquor ID, the FleetCenter won’t sell you a Sam until you’re 25.

I found this out last week. A vendor refused me service after examining my perfectly legitimate New York driver’s license. “It’s state law,” he explained, and he pointed to the officious-looking notice posted inauspiciously nearby. “State law, my foot!” said I; the state drinking age is well-known to be 21. The vendor responded curtly -- “Next!”

Now, this is an interesting little thought exercise. My initial response to the situation was one of disbelief, that the state’s policy made no sense. Doesn’t the Commonwealth of Massachusetts trust the driver’s licenses of other states? Does Massachusetts believe my New York license is somehow more easily forged than one issued by the Bay State? Of course not.

Then why the discrimination against out-of-staters? The answer, when you think about it just a bit, is quite simple: The Commonwealth wants you to pony up whatever fee is required to obtain a Massachusetts driver’s license or liquor ID. The fee can be considerable -- converting an out-of-state license costs a hefty $68.75.

Fine; Massachusetts wants your money. Nothing new about that. But why only the under-25s? Because the Commonwealth figures that out-of-staters over 25 who happen to be at the FleetCenter are visitors, working stiffs from New Hampshire or Connecticut, who will go home after the game; and there’s no reason to deny them beer. Under-25s, however, are likely to be students, residents, and Massachusetts has a love-hate relationship with students that has never really been resolved.

Students, by some estimates, make up over 20 percent of the population of the Bay State. The education industry means big bucks for the Commonwealth, and the masses of students themselves generate loads of economic activity, purchasing billions of dollars’ worth of local goods and services each year. The Boston area especially is in many respects a huge college town.

But students usually aren’t official residents of Massachusetts. They’re transients, remaining residents of their hometowns -- and as such, they don’t pay Bay State income taxes. Perhaps this is at the root of the Commonwealth’s sometime hostility toward students. After all, if six percent of students’ earnings went to Beacon Hill, Massachusetts might change its tune.

Or maybe the Bay State is hostile towards students because it perceives students as noisy troublemakers who too often dare to ruffle the Brahmin-groomed feathers of Puritan Boston. That, actually, is a rather polite interpretation; some critics have even gone so far as to charge that students are irresponsible juvenile delinquents who, through their stunts and escapades, attract unwanted attention and controversy and divert time and resources from other, more worthy local needs.

Whatever. If we accept an anti-student bias, how can we get rid of it? Michael Crowley, author of a Boston Phoenix article on this very topic and speaker at last week’s Democracy Teach-Ins, speculated some time ago on the possibility of students registering to vote as Massachusetts residents and electing themselves to positions of power within the Commonwealth. The relevant statistics are intriguing, especially when one realizes that the number of students in Boston is far greater than the number of people who actually voted in the last mayoral election.

Theoretically, students could indeed topple Mumbles Menino. Students could turn Boston into a twenty-something paradise ruled not with an iron fist but with a hand full of hemp, and all the problems faced today by students would vanish forever. Students in charge would ensure that everything went swimmingly. Right?

Well, it depends. Actually, I’m quite skeptical. On Thursday I went to a Teach-In talk given by Michael Albert ’69, former Undergraduate Association president booted from MIT for political reasons; he was an agitator and a radical who frequently starred in The Tech. Albert advocated a campus with open admissions and without grades or Defense Department research. He wasn’t concerned with issues that seem tiny in comparison, such as the Aramark monopoly. Is that because the issues have changed over the past thirty years, or is it because students have changed? Are students capable these days of the visionary sort of leadership that creates firebrands and protesters like Michael Albert? Several notches down, would students even be capable of running Boston?

It’s no wonder that Massachusetts can get away with disliking students. If students ever had any political might thirty years ago, they certainly have none now. At MIT, the UA is a joke, and student leadership is in shambles. Even big issues like undergraduate reform aren’t enough to galvanize students into assuming campus leadership positions and rallying the troops. How can we even think about tackling politics outside our little slice of Cambridge if we can’t even manage to hold our own against MIT administrators?

Times have changed since the 1960s. Students have become complacent, content to confine their interests to themselves, and have lost political power and respect as a result. Until a modicum of student leadership surfaces, nothing will change in Massachusetts; the love-hate relationship between the Bay State and its campuses will continue. And, needless to say, I don’t expect to be able to buy a beer at the FleetCenter any time soon.