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Skip the bars, take advantage of intellectual opportunities

BY FRANK DURHAM | MAY 12, 2009 7:26 AM

Some topics get saved for big moments, such as commencement addresses, “last lectures,” and retirement parties. But others need to be spoken within the daily give and take. Being direct has its place. Here goes.

The other day, as I was finishing my large lecture, I brought up two related topics that have a great deal to do with the quality of life on campus and here in Iowa City: binge-drinking and scholarship. This is not a new topic around here. The administration is deeply invested in trying to figure out how to get most students to reduce their drinking enough to improve their engagement in classes. That is what I intend here.

So in class the other day, it seemed important to speak to my students from a position of moral authority. (We don’t use either of those terms much any more, but I’m doing it here.) Rather than working within a policy initiative from a boardroom somewhere on the Pentacrest, I wanted to look these freshman and sophomore students in the eyes to tell them that we — together — have much more to gain from scholarship and problem-solving than from this campus’s constant bacchanal. That we lead the nation in binge drinking, but that that is not the same as being honored as a “big party” school. That it’s much more expensive. That we, the faculty, staff, and administration can see what most students are doing and that it’s a big problem.

Although the most dramatic features of the downtown booze scene are truly alarming — the roving gangs of men who beat each other (and whose identities are an open secret), the fights and sexual assaults — it is the chronic nature the problem week in and week out that undermines this campus. Mainly, this level of drinking is a massive waste of time and money. If you’re that out of it, you can’t be thinking at all. Think about it: Volunteering to get so drunk is like handing the front part of your brain to a bartender for the night. This happens en masse every night of the week in our fabled bars. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, approximately half of the students at the UI binge drink as many as three to four times a week. Another 25 percent get drunk once or more. That’s three quarters of the students per week. I’m not a prohibitionist, but how I love the remaining 25 percent! And I’m pulling for the ones who get plowed six nights a week, as another recent survey showed.

I cannot speak for everyone, but I am positive that such drunkenness undermines the common reasons we might have for being here. And let me be blunt: I am at odds with this culture, because I have dedicated my life and career to education, not to being drunk. It seems fair to say that the university faculty did not spend years in graduate school to earn Ph.D.s from the best universities in the nation just to preside over the “Students Gone Wild” culture that thrives downtown. And here’s a detail that counts: I really dislike walking though downtown on a Monday morning when it is slick with vomit. That reminds me of what is less likely to happen all day, namely, the intellectual exchanges I am interested in with my students. Let’s not discuss football game days. Good lord, Iowa, you can do better than that. Somehow.

Indeed, we have bigger fish to fry than tailgating, drinking, and sleeping in. In fact, your generation has been charged with solving the biggest set of problems ever seen: two wars that offer no hope for a workable resolution or even “victory”; a recession of global dimensions; and global warming, which is ticking on a short fuse. In short, you have to save the world. Really. My generation is supposed to help you.

So, here’s the deal: a solution that doesn’t take a penny more than we already spend: go out less and come to office hours more. The faculty here at the UI teach hundreds of courses that are designed to help you to learn how to solve the world’s problems. If there is a gap between us, it may be because so many of us are here for such different reasons. I’m inviting you to come across. That’s the only way we’re going to get together. It’s important. Every day, we give you the chance to walk right in to the classroom to claim the knowledge and understanding you must have to fix the world. Just showing up isn’t enough; you need to plug in.

You have big enough reasons.


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