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Change CMC's Drinking Culture? Impossible

November 11, 2009

by Kevin Burke
Change CMC's Drinking Culture? Impossible

There has been talk that the Dean of Students Jeff Huang and other CMC administrators want to crack down on the amount of drinking at CMC. Even if they make a serious effort to do so, they will find it extremely difficult to change the drinking culture here. Why? Let's talk about status games. Humans have always competed with each other for access to the opposite sex, so we can pass our genes on to the next generation. But if we attempted to kill everyone that competed with us, there wouldn't be very many survivors available to gather food, repel diseases and fight off other groups. Instead we developed games, like sports, humor, and fashion, as ways to assess status that wouldn't leave a group devastated. Different games have dominated over time and in different cultures, but every culture has them. Everyone wants to associate with high status people, who are the best at playing the game, because status is a proxy for evolutionary fitness. Furthermore, people that choose not to play games are assigned low status, because it's assumed that they don't play because they're bad at playing. The dominant social status game at every college in the US is partying. Partying lets us judge how fun other people are to be around, how much other people seem to like them and what sort of sexual partners they attract. On its face it makes little sense that our nation's best and brightest youth are so willing to drink; alcohol use kills brain cells, hurts academic and athletic performance, makes us more aggressive/more prone to engage in risky behavior, and has severe long-term health effects.

But drinking gives us higher status, because it's a credible signal of commitment; by drinking, we show our peers that we're willing to take risks and hurt ourselves for the benefit of the group. Drinking also gives us high status because it's wasteful - it kills brain cells, makes the drinker feel sick, and makes schoolwork impossible, so it's notable if you can party hard and still get good grades. When you see studies showing that drinkers earn more money than nondrinkers, it's not because alcohol opens pathways in the brain - it's because people who drink have higher status than nondrinkers, and thus are more likely to get paid more, compete in the workplace, and get bonuses.

CMC is the hardest partying school of any of the 5C's, due mainly to our cultural legacy as a men's only college, and the high proportion of athletes here. Because of our reputation and culture, not only do we attract students who are more likely to engage in hard partying, but we also train each incoming class to value partying as well. We assign social status to other CMC students based on how fun they are to be around and the status of their sexual partners, both of which are facilitated by partying and alcohol.

As long as drinking gives students higher status, then any attempts by the school to reduce the amount of drinking, either through more restrictive policy or through admitting more introverted students, will fail. Partying will get pushed inside dorm rooms, to the other colleges, Claremont bars or College Park. But people will continue partying; they have to, to preserve their status. High status people could announce that they're playing a different game, but they earned their high status by being good at partying, so they have little incentive to change the game, just like you wouldn't want CMC to suddenly begin admitting students with low SAT scores.

To be alcohol-free is to risk being judged harshly by one's peers and not invited along the next time everyone goes out. While Kenley Turville works her tail off for SLC, dry events will never be a big draw, because everyone worries that they'll be assigned low status for choosing not to drink. We assert that we can have good time without drinking, or we know someone who's fun and doesn't drink, but we're still there on a Saturday night taking pulls from a handle of Captain Morgan and bragging about how drunk we were the next morning at Collins. While the administration thinks the problem is simply about alcohol, for students, the stakes are far higher than a few shots.

(with thanks to Andy McKenzie and Charlie Sprague for discussion, and Katie Walker for the photo)

Should CMC change its alcohol policy?  Come listen to the discussion on Tuesday, November 17 at Debate Night at the Ath.  Sign up here.

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