Yale students get the rare opportunity to see future CEOs, Nobel Prize winners, and government officials stumbling around like idiots on a fairly regular basis. It’s an unusual weekend when I don’t hear several people drunkenly caterwauling beneath my window, although sometimes it is surprising how skillful this singing is until I realize that it’s coming from the operatic tenor across the hall. These students are drunk. No one cares, really. But it strikes many people, especially outsiders, as odd that such overachievers—the same people who spend six-hour blocks of time locked in the library hard at their scholarly pursuits—behave in what seems to be such a juvenile manner.
Why do Yalies drink so much? It’s a question that’s been posed many times, by editorial columnists in various newspapers, by medical researchers, and by students kicking empty plastic cups or their drunk roommates out of their way at 3:00 AM. All of these outsiders wonder the same thing: how can the brightest minds in the country be so stupid?
Some people contend that Yalies binge drink so that they will belong; others, that the illegality of alcohol lends drinking the excitement of forbidden fruit. Still others argue that the stress of Yale classes drives students to drink themselves into a blissful oblivion. These arguments miss the mark entirely.
Since most Yale freshmen live in all-frosh communities, there isn’t as much pressure to conform to the upper classmen’s deeply entrenched binge-drinking habits. If Yalies got drunk only to belong, then at the beginning of each year a new group of freshman would have the opportunity to form a group of non-drinkers, where people could “belong” without being wasted. This does not happen. Instead, groups of freshmen begin competing almost immediately to see who can throw the loudest, wildest, most alcohol-saturated parties. They’re not trying to belong; they’re trying to set themselves apart from the herd, or, continuing the animal motif, to become the alpha males of the group—an analogy that is surprisingly apropos with drunk Yalies.
Furthermore, many communities on the Yale campus don’t make getting drunk a central aspect of socializing. Most Yalies make most of their friends in classes or through extracurriculars, where heavy drinking is not usually involved. In extracurriculars, Yalies have the opportunity to belong to a group in a non-drinking context. In fact, in his 2001 article for the National Review William F. Buckley, Jr. recommended precisely that method (sponsoring more alcohol-free extracurricular activities) to stem the tide of binge drinking. The residential college system also creates a ready-made community environment, and students don’t have to drink in order to belong. This system is especially helpful at the beginning of the school year, when the temptation to drink in order to belong is greatest. Yalies have a ready-made group of friends in the residential college system from before day one. The low transfer rate between residential colleges (about two students from each college, usually freshmen, transfer each year) shows the residential college system’s success. Another factor not to be overlooked is the Cult of Yale: the feeling that everyone here is bonded by the adhesive on their acceptance letters. Yalies know that they are members of an elite group young people, and they feel camaraderie with other members of that group.
The excitement of the illegality of alcohol is not a factor at Yale, where drinking is considered a “health issue, not a discipline issue,” according to my freshman counselor. The University Health Services website states that “Students are not punished for seeking medical assistance for intoxication. However, students will get in trouble if they do something while drunk that would get them in trouble if they were sober (i.e. trash a bathroom). In other words, being drunk is not considered a mitigating factor.” Perhaps for this reason, the number of students seeking Yale-sponsored medical attention for alcohol poisoning was above the national average in 2002, according to a recent article in the Yale Daily News. Furthermore, any drunkenness cases not involving law-enforcement are kept confidential. Anywhere where freshmen dorms routinely host parties involving alcohol does not foster the kind of prohibition-era excitement where young people speaking in whispers sneak bottles of cheap vodka under their winter coats in the middle of May. Alcohol isn’t the forbidden fruit, it’s applesauce.
The last argument—the argument that stress drives Yalies to binge drink—is a little harder to sidestep. Yale is a stressful place, and Yalies do drink in part to escape from that stress. Yet binge drinking itself can lead to many stressful situations, such as impaired judgment, illness, and humiliation. Stress is not the root of the problem. In fact, stress and drinking are sister-problems—they spring from the same source. So while both problems exist, a cause-effect relationship between the two does not exist. The cause of both is much deeper and psychologically rooted. It is this: Yalies are masochists.
Yes, masochists. This revelation shouldn’t be too shocking. Yalies, especially freshmen, use every opportunity possible to abuse their bodies. They drink too much. They smoke too much. They sleep half as much as they should. They abuse caffeine. They have unprotected sex. They load themselves with ridiculous amounts of work (D.S. and freshman orgo?) They throw themselves into their extracurriculars with an almost savage vigor (ahem. YDN.)
Thus, it makes more sense to consider binge drinking in the larger context of self-abuse than in the comparatively narrow context of stress relief. The masochistic cycles of Yale students actually create more stress. Consider a typically masochistic procrastination cycle for the gender-neutral typical Yale student, henceforth to be called “Joe Bulldog.”
Thursday, Friday, and Saturday: Drinks himself sick. Smokes himself stupid. Doesn’t get much sleep.
Sunday: Looks at the amount of work he has. Freaks out. Pulls a caffeine and junk food fueled all-nighter.
Monday: Is sick from all-nighter. Skips class in order to sleep. Doesn’t work.
Tuesday: Feels guilty about skipping class. Feels bad about getting even farther behind by skipping class. Works like a maniac.
Wednesday: A rare moment of sanity. Goes to class. Sleeps. Does work.
I asked one of my friends whose schedule bears an eerie resemblance to the one above why he puts his body and mind through so much unnecessary stress. “I dunno,” he said, “It’s fun!” And this masochistic pattern doesn’t even account for extracurriculars, which further clog most Yalies’ schedules, leading to even more pain. As Joe Bulldog’s consistent repetition of his weekly schedule attests, Yalies thrive on pain, whether it comes from too much work, overinvolvement in extacurriculars, or binge drinking.
Where does this masochism begin? It’s definitely there in one form or another before freshman first set foot on campus. Joe Bulldog is at Yale because he was willing to go through great pain and sacrifice in order to make himself look good on paper. In high school, the Joe was expected to be valedictorian, editor-in-chief of the school paper, track star, and concertmaster. When the pain associated with devoting his life to building a resume is rewarded with praise from parents and peers and acceptance into one of the world’s top universities, he comes to associate agony and acclaim, pain and pleasure.
Once Joe Bulldog arrives, he simply takes his masochistic perfectionism to extremes. As witnessed by his high school career, it isn’t in the typical Joe’s nature to be a casual drinker, or for that matter a casual anything. Yalies don’t just work, they work TO THE MAX!!! When they’re not working, they procrastinate TO THE MAX!!! And when they drink, they drink TO THE MAX!!!