Compromise on the drinking age debate

Issue pub licenses to colleges. Let those pubs serve beer and wine to those with student IDs as young as 18.

William Marsh Rice statue at Rice UniversityBack when I was in college we had a pub.

Willy's was the prototype for what would become the modern sports bar. I worked there for a while after graduation. We had pizza, beer, bar snacks, and no trouble. (That's Willy at the right.)

A few years afterward the drinking age was raised to 21 and Willy's disappeared.

Now some college deans want to re-open the debate. They see mature 18 year-olds, men and women old enough to die in Iraq, and they see alcohol put on a par with marijuana and even harder drugs. The result -- binge drinking that can kill.

My daughter saw this for herself this summer, during her summer semester in Italy. Some of her classmates saw the trip as a license to get plastered. It was not a good time.

Groups like MADD see the issue differently. They don't see mature 18 year-olds on a college campus. They see 15 year-olds looking to get something from the local convenience store. They see fake IDs and kids dropping dead on the highway.

Both sides are right.

I was once wholly in favor of "old enough to fight, old enough to drink," but as the father of two teens I can also see the other side.

So let me offer a modest proposal, a compromise.

Bring back Willy's.

That is, issue pub licenses to colleges. Let those pubs serve beer and wine to those with student IDs as young as 18.

And here's something the colleges can do to limit the potential liability. Put a breathalyzer on the bar. Blow it at a .08 and you're cut off. Two drink maximum.

There is something to be said for the idea that you should learn to drink as you learn anything else. A glass of wine with dinner, for an adult, is actually quite beneficial. It also builds conviviality into the meal. It helps create community.

But drinking well is a skill. Knowing the difference between a good glass of wine and swill, knowing how to sip, learning how to taste, learning to match food and drink, and learning when to stop. These are all valuable lessons.

So take the responsibility to teach them well. Keep the drinking age at 21, but let colleges do the teaching they know how to do, if that is indeed their aim.

And let them also take responsibility for the result. If the college owns a bar, the college has legal responsibility for what happens both inside and around that bar.

This compromise may make MADD mad, but it shouldn't. Those 15 year-olds will still be six years from the legal drinking age. Bar-filled college strips selling binges to 19 year-olds will still be prohibited.

But the lesson will be taught, and the kids will be all right.