An acquaintance of mine recently asked me if Harvard was “a big party school.” As images of stumbling frat boys snorting cocaine off of mirrored tables came to mind, I instinctively replied, “no.” My acquaintance scoffed, as if to alert me to the social superiority of his school to mine, inquiring, “When was the last time someone actually died at a party?” Unsurprisingly, I was taken aback: he was using number of deaths by alcohol poisoning as an indicator of the quality of the social scene on his campus.
This incident, combined with the Boston Police’s recent effort to reinstate the Prohibition at this year’s Harvard-Yale football game—and the overwhelming uproar of student indignation that followed—led me to ponder the culture of binge drinking that, make no mistake about it, is alive and well in the Ivy League.
Harvard College is brimming with obsessive-compulsive, type-A personalities, most of whom see all things worth doing as a stepping-stone in the road whose ultimate destination is success. Whether it be studying, digging wells in Tanzania, or partying like a rock star, many Harvard students tend to see each and every action as a resume-builder or a means to some impressive end.
In this echelon of higher education, even the party scene reeks of this productive mentality. Many students go out with the intention of “blackout raging” (a.k.a. “drinking excessively”) several nights a week.
Throughout the course of any given night, these otherwise upstanding members of society—who likely preside over three organizations and manage to maintain a 4.0 GPA—might, in a chemically induced haze, lose their I.D., hook up with six varsity athletes, and polish off the night with a memorable (if not remembered) high-speed police chase. The following morning, these students manage to arrive to class on time, looking preppy and sporting a few unidentifiable injuries, only to take thorough notes and engage in meaningful conversation with their professor after class. All in a day’s work.
I pondered the implications of this peculiar phenomenon this Tuesday evening as I began to hear the customary drunken wails from nearby Dewolfe Street—which an illustrious peer of mine encouraged by hollering back from her Quincy window. I was reminded of the biological curiosity of the peacock’s tail: what is the evolutionary advantage to carrying around a cumbersome dangling appendage?
Cheryl Knott, an associate professor in the anthropology department, offers the theory that creatures developed these anatomical innovations to appeal to members of the opposite sex. This seems to imply that their genes must be pretty superior if they can pass through the sieve of natural selection with such a glorious, if inconvenient, handicap.
Similarly, debauched students are demonstrating their ability to be better rounded than their classmates in a slightly perverse way—as if to say, “I can party like a student at a state school and still dominate in my astrophysics class.”
Believe it or not, the party culture has a more than substantial following among the Harvard student body, about 34.5 percent of males and 26.9 percent of females of which self-identify as “binge drinkers” according to a 2002 Harvard College Survey. Regardless of the number of offenders, it should not be treated as just another extracurricular activity, another task at which to excel with all competitive zest. Lest we forget—as we tend to do, after a few beers—binge drinking carries with it a host of not-so-funny and potentially serious consequences.
But at Harvard, mediocrity is nothing short of unacceptable—even on Saturday night. So chug, party all-star: that glib yet strapping Spee-man from philosophy section seems to be climbing the ladder to social success faster than you are.
James H. O’Keefe ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Kirkland House.