The “Whiffenpoofs” are assembled “with their glasses raised on high,” as the nostalgic Yale College hymn goes. The University of Maine fight-song resounds: “Lift the steins to dear old Maine…” That college life has historically been associated with drinking, genteel or otherwise, not to mention rowdiness, has long been known among the townsmen wherein colleges are located.

Elizabeth Griesedieck’s (COL ’11) cartoon featured in The Hoya last fall (Aug. 31, 2010) showed begging freshmen with mugs in hand, going from door to door to upper-class student town houses with empty mugs in hand pleading, in words parodying Dickens, “Please, Sir, could you give us something to drink?”

The education of the civilized young to some extent presupposes a starting point in education for gentleness. Roughly, this is what Aristotle meant by acquiring the virtues. We are not born with them but must ourselves acquire and practice them.

In his autobiography, “A Little Learning,” a title with ominous overtones, Evelyn Waugh recalls once being asked what he “did” for his Oxford college. Waugh explained: “Hertford (College Oxford) was also agreeably free both from the schoolboyish “college spirit”… the bane of many small colleges and of the hooliganism which on occasion broke out against the eccentrics in the larger, though it is true that both these defects were exemplified when at a ‘fresher’s blind’…a tipsy white colonial invaded my room demanding to know what I ‘did for the college?'”

Waugh’s reply was classic: “I drank for it!” The “colonial’s” friends took him away before violence occurred.

One can only laugh at the notion that one’s contribution to his college was “to drink for it.” But, perhaps, that is not a bad contribution. One must at some point learn “how to drink.” It usually does not come with the genes. This “little learning” usually involves, though not to be encouraged, drinking too much. (There are some few who drink too little). Drinking experience may indicate that one cannot drink at all.

We learn by our mistakes as well as by obeying the commandments. Often our own sins are a severe discipline, not just confined to drinking. Seeing the results of our own aberrant deeds is a more sober lesson than exhortations about what to avoid.

In our early 20s, we begin to realize that many parental rules, though rather dumb at the time, make sense. They will make more sense with one’s own children. From our sins and faults we should learn something about a better way to do things. Reality, to our surprise, is often unyielding to our wills.

In my graduate school days here at Georgetown, the student pub was in Healy basement. The drinking age in the District was then 18. The hour of closing was 2 a.m. It was this “early,” I believe, so the students could return to their dorms to study before class.

My room was on the third floor of the Ryan Hall, the old Jesuit residence. At 2 a.m. outside my window, the noise increase was exponential. After that, the busboys threw around trash cans to clean up. The townsfolk had an issue.

My point is not that we want pubs with un-Tombs-like quiet. I also know, being an observer of original sin, that any bar or pub owner may need an “enforcer.” One of my cousins once owned a tavern in Iowa. He was a rather big man himself and a good narrator of what goes on in such institutions. It ain’t always pretty.

Why bring up this issue of pubs and drinking in the context of college life? It needs to be talked about.

The first time I was in Ireland, I stayed with a shirt-tail relative in Dublin. This man once ran a bar in New York. He made a lot of money in the process and retired in Ireland.

The man took me to a local pub. After about half an hour of talking over, I suppose, a Guinness, he turned to me: “Listen! Do you hear anything?” Actually, everyone in the pub was quietly chatting. I said “No.” He exclaimed, “That’s it! A pub is a place to talk and converse, not like those rowdy New York bars! If you want to make noise, you go to the music pub.”

We did go to the music pub. After listening to Irish songs, I thought: “This music is somehow an extension of conversation, indeed an elevation of it.”

So what is the conclusion of this essay on “college life?” Not neglecting the ordinary things, we are here to converse about the highest things that concern our kind. When we have ourselves, a la Aristotle, in hand, we begin to participate in that great interchange that is humanity itself.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is a faculty member of the government department. AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT… appears every other Friday.

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