Even from thirty feet away, I knew it was a pipe. The circle of underclassmen—all of whom I knew, at least in passing—was handing it around. Each one brought it to their lips, lit the bowl, and, giving that unmistakable thousand-yard stare, blew out a cloud of white smoke. They then handed it to the next person, and the process began again. Only at Swarthmore, I thought as I walked past, could they be doing this at three in the afternoon. I couldn’t help but think, in spite of myself, that there was something wrong with how freely, almost thoughtlessly, Swarthmore students take drugs, and the degree to which socializing depends on the use of drugs.
It’s often said that, at Swarthmore, the biggest nights for partying are Thursday and Saturday. This is true. However, those who say this neglect to mention that, in many cases, Friday is also usually a common night for partying, or that many students also drink and smoke on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays.
Walking around campus after dark, you’re almost certain to run into more than a few circles of people squatting in the grass or sitting on benches, casually passing around a joint. Go inside the dorms, and you’ll see people in their rooms and in the hallways buzzed, stoned, or both. What’s troubling is not that these students are endangering themselves. After all, from their perspective, they aren’t. There simply isn’t much physical risk of danger from drug use at Swat. To them there’s nothing out of the ordinary about smoking and drinking every day of the week; why worry about something you do almost every day? Instead, the problem is a cultural one.
I’m not making this critique because I don’t have experience with drugs. Little of what I’ve seen at Swat is new to me. I come from a small town with little to do for the under-50 set. Kids in my school drank, smoked, and flirted with other substances as early as fourteen. I understand why: they were bored. But that doesn’t change the fact that their behavior was unhealthy. I can’t remember many parties in high school that didn’t end in at least one person vomiting. After a while I became somewhat blasé about it; at the last party I went to before graduation, I had a calm, well-mannered conversation sitting on the lawn two feet from a friend passed-out in a puddle of his own bile.
The problem is not that Swarthmore students are doing drugs. The problem is that social life at Swarthmore is in large part founded upon the casual use of alcohol and marijuana. As a consequence, there’s almost nothing to do for those who don’t want to do drugs, who can’t smoke or drink for whatever reason, but who don’t want to cloister themselves in their dorm rooms or in the libraries at night. Even the “alternative” parties hosted by NuWave usually involve heavy drinking. Of course, it’s possible to be sober while surrounded by people who are drunk and stoned, but it’s difficult not to be miserable under such circumstances. Being around drunk people when you’re sober is like playing jazz to an audience of metalheads.
Is this situation a result of that fabled demon of fifth-grade DARE programs: peer pressure? Not exactly. It seems instead to stem from a lack of imagination. Swatties simply cannot think of anything else to do. They lack options, or at least think they lack options, so they do the most obvious thing they can do, smoke and drink. The problem is not bad behavior that needs to be put to an end; it is, rather, a collective mindset too narrow to allow for other possible courses of action.
So, you ask, what’s the solution? And all I can do is shrug my shoulders. This isn’t the kind of problem that has a simple, technical solution—do X, Y, and Z, and lo and behold, suddenly it’s possible to be sober and happy at Swarthmore. No, this is a wicked problem. One that requires an entirely new mindset. It’s a change that begins at the most fundamental level: the level of individual students.
But what can one Swattie do? No more than this: ask that you take care of yourself. This means being selfish to a certain degree. Each and every one of us must consider: Am I doing what I want? Or am I doing what I think I should want? The two should never be confused.
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