Felipe Fernández-Armesto

December 22, 2006

In what used to be my favourite episode of The Simpsons , Moe, the bartender at Homer's sordid, beer-swilling local dive, makes an epiphanic journey back to his alma mater. At Swigmore College he learnt his true trade: cocktail mixing and atmosphere creation. In a delicious skit on American campus movies, he rediscovers his vocation amid autumn colours and ivy-covered halls. What made me love the show was the absurdity of it all. Swigmore College! A bartenders' university!

In the US, we have institutions of higher learning for almost everything. "Ability to handle heavy weights and a bachelors degree required" is a typical job ad. There are schools that call themselves universities for accountants, restaurateurs, osteopaths and sports coaches.

Apart, perhaps, from prostitution, the one profession so widely reviled that you would never expect to find it hallowed by academe is the supply of intoxicating liquor. That, at least, is what I thought. I have spent this morning reading about bartending schools on the web. I no longer think Moe's adventures funny: they are too realistic for satire.

I was astonished to find that on the campus of Harvard University students can do a weekend "mixology" course to equip them to shake cocktails in local bars or, as the course promotion says, prepare for "three better years of partying" in their freshman year. At Columbia University, a "School of Mixology" offers five-week training in the same arts. The syllabus of Bartending University in North Carolina - "committed to excellence" - covers "alcohol law, etiquette, service standards, glassware selections and liquor labels". At Bartending Academy - Arizona's only state-certified bartending school - you learn that "bartending goes back to the days of the Romans".

What makes this weird is that universities hate or affect to hate drink.

The legacies of puritanism and Prohibition are still strong here. One of President Ronald Reagan's more stupid laws was to forbid people under the age of 21 to have so much as a glass of wine with their meals, which pretty much ensures that teen drinking takes the form of clandestine abuse.

Universities have to appear to enforce the law because if a student were to get drunk and cause trouble or inflict harm, the school would get a big bill for damages. The first note I received during my first experience as a visiting professor in the US did not say, as I expected, "Welcome to Brown University", but warned me not to give a drink to a student under the age of 21. I grew anxious, because experience suggested that no student could get through an hour of my company unfortified by a glass of sherry. I have been to fundraising meals on US campuses at which no drink was served. The idea that benefactors would sign cheques without lubrication left me staggering, though sober. In the faculty dining room at the university where I work, you can't get a drink at lunchtime, so I entertain guests elsewhere.

The other day at a club in Washington DC I met a scholar who has a huge government research grant at a big university. Her objective is to find ways to discourage students from drinking. "Wouldn't it be more sensible,"

I asked, "to encourage them to drink responsibly? And wouldn't the most helpful step be a reform of the law and a revolution in the culture to allow young people to grow up with knowledge and experience of alcohol?"

She responded with a common technique: conceding the point while making it abundantly clear that she proposed to ignore it. I endured a lecture on the evils of demon drink - its association with accidents, crimes and domestic violence. "But," I said, when she paused for breath and a sip of limpid water, "isn't a lot of that the result of the way the law and the culture demonise drink?" She agreed perfunctorily, and resumed the lecture. I swigged my wine.

US attitudes to alcohol are riven with paradox. Young people are prevented from enjoying a health-giving glass with meals, yet encouraged in flatulence or obesity with bubbly, sugary soda pops. Drink is virtually banned in workplaces, and if you take a glass of wine in working hours - as I do daily pour épater les bourgeois - people stare at you with eyes darkened by anxiety at this evidence of incipient alcoholism. Yet, in the evening, when the dangers of corporate responsibility disperse, my guests think nothing of downing three or four Martinis, a different wine with every course and a liqueur or two before driving home. The law is ferocious with sober teenagers who take a drink but lax with grown-up drunks in charge of deadly vehicles.

I daren't let my students drink, but at least I now know I can write testimonials for them for bartending schools. Meanwhile, if God spares my liver, I shall make it my mission to acclimatise my neighbours and colleagues to wine at lunchtime.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is Prince of Asturias professor of history at Tufts University in the US.

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