Pictures from an Institution

Review of I Am Charlotte Simmons. Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Review of Books, December 16, 2004.

Two unrelated items from The New York Times of Tuesday, November 9, 2004, direct our attention to crises in American higher education. The first, which appears on page A16 of the national section, is grim. Entitled “Drinking Deaths Draw Attention to Old Campus Problem,” it is a report on the deaths of two teenaged undergraduates at American universities. One, a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Colorado State University, died of alcohol poisoning “after an evening out with friends in which she drank the equivalent of 30 to 40 beers and shots”; the other, an eighteen-year-old freshman at the University of Colorado, died after a night spent “chugging whiskey and wine as part of an initiation ceremony with his fraternity brothers.” Such deaths, as the article makes clear, are not all that exceptional: according to a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 1,400 college students between eighteen and twenty-four die each year as the result of excessive drinking.

The campus culture of binge drinking is, as the Times article goes on to suggest, intimately connected to two institutions deeply rooted in American campus life: fraternities and athletics. It’s no accident that some universities, faced with the problem of excessive drinking among undergraduates, have banned the sale of alcohol at both fraternity houses and football games. You’re somehow not surprised to learn that in Boulder, the town’s largest liquor store is owned by the University of Colorado’s athletic director…

The New York Review of Books