One challenge of teaching social policy is
that students—social work students anyway—too often mistake advocacy for
analysis, opinion for fact. It makes it
hard to conduct a serious analysis of a problem and the best ways to address it
if you smuggle your preferred solution into the way you define the
problem. The problem is lack of
resources or services, the intervention is to provide more, and the criterion
for evaluating success is whether more were provided—omitting the rather key
question of whether the resources or services made any difference to whatever
social problem they were supposed to address.
Too often the inquiry becomes pro
forma because the “analyst” has decided on the preferred policy approach
before doing any analysis. (This
problem, unfortunately is by no means limited to students.)
Mary Eberstadt’s essay on “Bacchanalia
Unbound” in the current issue of First
Things is refreshing in this respect.
Not that she lacks opinions on the toxicity of the environment that many
young college students enter when they start their undergraduate
education. She addresses problems like
binge drinking and hooking up that many students and progressive faculty do not
even see as a problem, or at least not
different from universal and timeless student behavior. But though the essay is far from being a
formal policy analysis, Eberstadt entertains real alternatives, some of which
are compelling but counter-intuitive.
On the problem of binge drinking of college
students, for example, the problem of how to reduce it elicits two opposed
strategies. One is from a group of college presidents, under the name of
the Amethyst Initiative, which wants to lower the drinking age on the grounds
that the current high minimum age of 21 encourages binge
drinking (as happened in England and Australia when they had strictly limited
pub hours). Here we have college presidents taking the view associated
with leftist academic sociologists of deviancy of past decades who saw the
roots of deviant behavior in social control.
(If people didn’t condemn it, it wouldn’t be deviant. The way to reduce the incidence of
drug-related crime is to decriminalize drug use.)
As Eberstadt suggests, there is much to
commend this approach, but also a big obstacle in this context—boys and
cars. The other policy approach,
favoring the high minimum drinking age and supported by Mothers Against Drunk
Driving (MADD), fiercely opposes the college presidents on the grounds that the
present high minimum age reduces traffic fatalities.
And then there is the stricter college rules
and enforcement approach–no alcohol at fraternity or sorority parties at which
freshmen are present.
The other topic is the (linked but distinct) practice of “hooking
up,” which is arguably much more harmful than commonly
recognized–disproportionately harming young women; encouraging male
irresponsibility, selfishness, and lack of empathy or love; degrading human
sexuality into a less than fully human activity that engages the whole person;
and undermining marriage and family by detaching love and commitment from sex;
and so forth.
Again, there are interestingly different
approaches to addressing the problem, from denying that it is a problem at all;
to tightening up on university rules for underage drinking, dorm room visiting,
social events, and so on; to encouraging a return to earlier marriage (and so to
dating as a more serious matter involving a potential spouse rather than casual
sex for the next ten years as a substitute for dating). As Eberstadt observes, this last approach
would be a hard sell to parents, who themselves want to see their kids’ ever
more expensive college education completed without being sidetracked by
marriage. But for a case for earlier
Both would be interesting and less
well-trodden paths for a policy analysis paper than more common, but not
unimportant social welfare topics such as how to reduce homelessness among
people with severe and persistent mental illness. Both student binge
drinking and hooking up elicit intriguing and non-obvious options, and can be adapted
to other populations of young people. Both begin in high school, I’m told. Leonard Sax’s book, Why Gender Matters,
has a very depressing chapter on hooking up in high school. And then
there’s Tom Wolfe’s powerful novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons.
Paul Adams is professor of social
policy at the Myron B. Thompson School
of Social Work at the University of Hawai’i. His blog, Ethics, Culture,
and Policy is at http://ethicsculture.blogspot.com.