Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Scoffing at Responsibility

On early Sunday morning December 11 Zachary Dunlevy, an 18-year old college freshman at Limestone College in Gaffney, South Carolina, died from alcohol poisoning. The premature death of the young is always troubling to the human spirit. My heart is sorrowful for the grief Dunlevy's family is experiencing. As the small college community gathered Monday morning for an impromptu memorial service, Zachary's father, David said, "Please, learn from this," in a plea to the Limestone faculty and students in attendance.

A troubling quote from college chaplain Ron Singleton makes one wonder what this community and other communities who have been shaken to the core by substance-abuse deaths will learn from Zachary's death. When pressed about the fact that college students under the age of 21 are breaking the law by consuming alcohol, college officials concede that under-age students will go to parties where alcohol is served. Singleton said this in response: "We understand that. We certainly don't condone that. But we have to strike a balance between preaching, which could turn them off, and just saying, 'Hey, be responsible.'"

Proverbs 14:12 says, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death." I couldn't help but think of this verse when I read Chaplain Singleton's response to the problem of under-age drinking on college campuses. Essentially what Singleton concedes is the message of the administration is this: It is against the law to consume alcohol under the age of 21. However, we know that many students are going to drink under-age. As long as you are going to drink our advice is this: drink responsibly.

It seems right not to tell college students that under-age drinking is wrong because no one wants to be told what they are doing is wrong. It seems right not to put more stringent penalties in place for students who violate the ethics code at a college or university by drinking under-age. After all, do we want to ruin their future just because they are having a little fun. It is amazing how often our culture rewards people for the folly of youthful indiscretion instead of allowing people to deal with the consequences of their actions. It seems right to encourage responsibility (in regards to alcohol, drugs and sex) because we have conceded these actions as a right to the youthful generation instead of enforcing an ethic of morality and self-control in our institutions of higher learning. But what we are discovering is that what seems right in the eyes of men leads only to death and destruction. Singleton's wisdom is foolish.

The tragic death of an 18-year old early Sunday at Limestone isn't an isolated incident. This same story makes front page news on almost a daily basis in our culture. But what isn't being talked about is the failure of our society to protect students from their folly. This isn't to say that Limestone College is wholly responsible for the death of Zachary Dunlevy. They didn't provide the hard liquor that killed him, and no one made him drink far more than he should have consumed. But this is about fostering a dangerous environment of excess in regards to alcohol, drugs, sex and other vices where administrators, professors and chaplians aren't willing to be more proactive in taking a stand against irresponsible excesses and abuse. It's not enough to concede to the madness of youthful folly and simply offer the instruction "be responsible". 18 year-old students with the drive to impress and desire for acceptance rarely exercise responsibility and self-control in an environment where anything goes; the same is true for most mature adults as well.

I've already alluded to a contributing factor for this culture of excess at our institutions of higher learning. Our society is prone to overlook the misconduct of our youth. This practice cultivates a sense of invicibility and lack of accountability within students. If there are never any significant, real consequences to our actions, then what is to keep us from commiting the same offenses - whether against ourselves or others - time and time again. I know that college's and universities aren't the gate-keepers of morality and the moral compass of student's on our nation's campuses is pointing in countless different directions. But the faculty and administrations of our higher education institutions are supposed to care about their students. As a matter of fact, I bet that this notion of "caring" is a part of the sales pitch of almost every college and university in our country. And if they tell us they care, then they must demonstrate their affection and concern about the well-being of their students in a more constructive way than simply telling students to "be responsible" while engaging in various self-destructive behaviors that far too many colleges and universities condone by their silence.


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