Review: Why College Students Drink Too Much

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Getting Wasted: Why College Students Drink Too Much and Party So Hard, by Thomas Vander Ven (New York University Press) 215 pages

To the best of my knowledge, and my limited research, this is the definitive book on college drinking. It’s a fairly dense and scholarly text, but it’s well organized and easy to read. Like a highly enjoyable doctoral thesis that really sucks you in. Vander Ven is a sociology professor and that’s his jumping off point for this study: the sociology of the college drinking world. It’s actually a study of groups more than individuals, and the results of his findings suggest that the phenomenon of something called “drunk support” is very real; that is the great discovery contained here, and it’s a pretty good one. Students will lie to authorities, they’ll break the law, they’ll get into physical altercations and they’ll take responsibility for the safe transport of drunk friends all as part of a “drunk support” system that seems to be rooted in our drinking DNA, at least that’s the general takeaway.

Over and over, the theme of alcohol as a social lubricant comes to the fore, as students discuss how drinking opens the door to a world without all the trappings of sobriety and society. This leads not only to drunken hook-ups, the good and bad kind, it also leads to a newfound sense of self that allows for much deeper social connections, the good and bad kind. The art of drinking to excess within the context of your peer group brings with it a (false) sense of unity, and it also gives rise to more base human interactions where people can be “their real selves.” The notion of “drunk support” stems from this tree trunk.

The use of lengthy quotes from numerous students adds a living component. Vander Ven does a good job of setting the scene, and his use of language is keen and precise as in this discussion of the drinking game, Beer Pong. “…Beer Pong was a competitive mechanism for friends to challenge one another, to make fun of one another and to build on an already existing solidarity. It is no surprise, then, that Beer Pong was the most frequently referenced drinking game in the current data. Beer Pong is not just a pre-game activity; it’s often the main event.”

In the chapter entitled, When Everything Falls Apart we are introduced to student narratives about the tail-end of the ride, when sickness and misery start to kick in. We hear from Kim, a twenty year old female: “The most recent time I drank almost killed me… We played drinking games… drank glasses of Bacardi, 2 glasses of beer, 8 vanilla vodka shots, 2 regular vodka shots and a wine cooler.” It’s no wonder it almost killed her.

Vander Ven uses this as an entrée into the possibilities of something tragic occurring. He tells us about a nineteen year old female who died as a result of drinking the equivalent of 30 shots over eleven hours. We are reminded that alcohol poisoning may be rare, but it does happen. Vander Ven manages to be researcher, philosopher and citizen all at once, and he offers moments from his own experience with his child.

This is a rock solid piece of work, and it rather took me by surprise right from the opening pages. It’s a book I can see smart college students reading and enjoying right alongside academics, critics and others. Vander Ven takes us home on a high note and ends the book on the most hopeful tip he can find. In the end, college binge drinking and the related culture, seems to be intrinsically tied to something in the human psyche, as a rite of passage or whatever. Perhaps, therefore, somehow, nature manages to keep the vast majority of student-bingers from ending up dead, as long as students practice some “drunk support” and look out for each other. The morale of the story: don’t drink alone.