Before arriving at Wes, I’d heard stories of past students’ debauchery, activism, and radicalism—wild drug and alcohol use, nudity, social agitation. When I told people I was going to Wesleyan, some joked about the “crazy” history of the institution and its students. While nobody called it a “party school” to my face, I was expecting lots of drinking, and drunken parties. My arrival on campus led me to question how true these characterizations really were.
In search of insight, I trekked up to the highest level of Olin and into the Argives to browse through Argus editions of yore to try to get a sense of the truth. Some articles from the early ’80s gave me a better sense of the culture.
However, before getting into the details of my Argives discovery, we should step back to contextualize the history that Wesleyan’s drinking culture is situated in.
Today, in the United States, residents below the age of 21 are not allowed to purchase—and are highly discouraged from drinking—alcohol. The abuse of alcohol, depending on your ideals, is viewed as a moral deficit or as a social illness. While many people under the age of 21 bemoan this lack of freedom, it may seem like an immutable fact of life, a small sacrifice to make for “the common good” and general health and safety. Of course, other countries have vastly differing regulations on the sale of liquor. And since people seem to really like drinking and how it makes them feel, why is it restricted? I remember my dad telling me stories about going out to bars in high school with his sheriff’s card and coming back late at night, drunk. His parents didn’t seem to care.
Alcohol is not a new discovery—humans have been consuming some form of alcohol for over nine thousand years. That’s a lot of brewskis across human evolution. Back then, of course, it wasn’t a glass of wine, a can of beer, a shot of tequila, or another drink we’d consider common. It was more of a “thin gruel” made in ditches, with way less alcohol content. It was less psychoactive, too, and people who had a lot of other stuff going on—what with contending with nature and all that—made time to make it and drink it. That may seem surprising compared to today, as cold ones carry a sense of stigma, immorality, or looseness. Alcohol was completely illegal in the ’20s under Prohibition, though people still drank it. The Puritanical ideals of temperance, modesty, and purity have made many see alcohol as negative. We are allowed to “indulge” in it under certain circumstances: on weekends, at celebrations, with friends.
Wesleyan students under 21, as individuals under the jurisdiction of the United States, are not allowed to drink alcohol or provide it to minors. Enforcement on campus is left to Public Safety, and consequences for infractions range from points to expulsion to legal trouble. But people have parties all the time, and I think it’s fair to say drinking definitely occurs at them. If, as I’ve heard, Wesleyan students are radical, rebellious, and debaucherous, what have they had to say about this potentially restrictive law?
On Sept. 10, 1982, Paul Kusserow ’85 wrote about alcohol policies’ effect on campus in a piece ironically titled “Change in Connecticut drinking law increases frosh milk consumption.” In the article, Kusserow quoted Assistant Dean Denise Darrigrand, who explained that the change had improved orientation.
“I think it was one of the most successful orientations I’ve participated in,” Darrigrand said. “During my first year of orientation the major complaint was there was too much alcohol. This year was much more successful in terms of getting people together.”
Kusserow also talked to a Resident Advisor (RA).
“What happens is people are getting alcohol any time they want it so there’s no pressure on the RA,” Andrew Barer ’84 said.
One first year also seemed supportive of the change, saying, “I had a good time, I talked to a lot of people and actually remembered their names the next morning.”
Kusserow also wrote about the question of fraternities, which host parties with drinking in order to meet and attract new members. Psi Upsilon said it was considering carding people at the door and stamping hands. Members of the frat would have to abide by the “Reasonable Care Clause,” meaning they make sure no one under the legal limit drinks. Nottingham, a member of Psi Upsilon, didn’t seem too worried.
“He thought it [would] encourage responsibility within fraternities and consequently boost their images,” Kusserow wrote.
At the same time, in 1983, Middletown lawmakers were banning open alcohol containers in public in an attempt to “reduce disturbances.”
Another article, published Sept. 2, 1983 by Linda Loewenthal ’85, described the change when the age limit was raised again, to 20. In the article “Drinking age hike hits students,” Loewenthal explained how the law change would also “decrease funding for the Alcohol Education and Treatment Fund, an organization run by the state which treats drunk drivers and alcoholics.” Apparently the law was passed “largely as the result of pressure from neighboring states, particularly Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where the drinking age is already 20.”
“The motives behind this change are political in nature,” Loewenthal quoted a state official saying. “Unfortunately, the new law has very little to do with safety…. State legislators looked around and saw that other states had a drinking age of 20. Why should Connecticut be any different?”
Another lawmaker, J. Vincent Chase, gave the reason for the change as the danger of drunk-driving accidents among young people, especially those crossing state lines to drink.
Loewenthal wrote that the Middletown Police would increase bar checks and “crack down on” bars that served minors.
Dean Darrigrand stated her intention to enforce the law at any parties or social events on campus, but sophomores called the law “ridiculous.”
“They keep pushing up the drinking age little by little,” Judith Weld ’86 said. “Why don’t they change it one and for all?… A higher drinking age doesn’t make sense. The law should focus on drunk driving, not age. A 20 year old is no more responsible than a 19 year old. Pretty soon no one at Wesleyan will be able to drink.” The photo accompanying the article was of a child holding a bottle of liquor, with a caption that read “Starting Oct. 1 this young man will have to drink only soda and fruit juice until his 20th birthday.”
Thus I conclude my little venture into the Argives. Now that I’ve learned a little more about the history and rules of drinking at Wes, I only have one thing to say: Drink responsibly, folks.
Sophie Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.