Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Drinking in Rome

A story in this morning's New York Times describes the rapidly growing problem of excessive drinking by tourists in the city center, threatening the fabric of both everyday residential life and the historic value of the center itself.

Much of the problem is brought by American college students, who are importing the culture of binge drinking that is a growing problem on American college campuses. Professor Romolo Martemucci, director of Penn State's Sede di Roma, tells students in his orientation sessions that the number one problem he faces as director of the Sede is student drinking, and the problems that follow. Graham Spanier, president of Penn State, makes much the same point about Penn State as a whole. My own experience confirms this. A few students in a small program of 20-30 students can destroy not only their own study abroad experience by habitual binge drinking, but they also create ongoing problems for everyone else in the program.

Leading a study-abroad program opens a variety of pedagogical issues that are not so visible at our home university. When we bring students into an international setting, their presence changes what is before them. Because they are in a group, they are tempted to fall into various modes of not attending to the culture that is before them--slipping into a tourist daze, into an inward-turning pack of American students, into the reflexive defensiveness toward institutional learning that they have developed over the years. All of these ways of behaving are natural products of the educational background and the particular circumstances that we find ourselves in.

The Times article makes the useful point that it is not just a matter of tourists (presumably not just from America) destroying the life of the place they visit with their partying. Zoning policies have changed central Rome, increasing the number of bars designed to attract young drinkers. Presumably these zoning changes were designed to accommodate entrepreneurs and to increase local tax revenues, since a busy bar can generate more tax money than a quiet apartment. But the resulting bar culture, with its noise, trash, and general rowdiness, destroys the culture that was here as recently as five years ago, turning central Rome into something like a weekend night in State College. That earlier Roman culture was, of course, just as artificial as the one now threatening to displace it, and no doubt it was was its own mix of privilege and deprivation, daily life and tourist kitsch.

But perhaps a professor is justified in asking whether it is worth the trouble to bring American students here just to overwhelm the place by reproducing the "night life" of college towns in America.

The story of the decline of Rome is well over 2000 years old--it is part of our sense of the reality of the place, so generic that it seems obvious to us.

Thanks to Dawn Taylor, who spotted this article in the Times and pointed it out to me.

No comments: