Performance Enhancers: Opiate of the Student Proletariat?

adderall-body.jpgLast year satirical news outlet The Onion reported that Harvard had awarded an honorary degree to the performance-enhancing ADHD medication Adderall:

"Harvard is proud to honor the tremendous merits of Adderall, without which many of you would not be sitting here today," [President Drew] Faust said in her opening address to the nearly 1,900 unblinking and intensely focused students receiving their diplomas. "I don't think I'm exaggerating matters when I say that Adderall has been an inspiration to us all."

The psychologically addictive drug then received resounding applause from the assembled graduates, with many jumping to their feet, clapping in near unison for 25 straight minutes, temporarily forgetting where they were, and then grinding their teeth in celebration of the well-deserved honor.

But according a new report in the Washington Post, the real illicit Adderall fiend is more likely to be a panicking slacker than an Ivy League hyperachiever. 

The average user is often a below-average student, according to a study by the University of Maryland's Center on Young Adult Health and Development. The center surveyed 1,250 students and found that those using stimulants had a grade-point average of 2.82, lower than the non-user average of 2.96. Users also studied two hours less per week, socialized three and a half hours more and missed more classes. Such evidence suggests that some students party so much they fall behind academically, and turn to study drugs in an effort to catch up.

Concerns a few years ago that students would be forced to use stimulants in the fight for class rank and honors thus seem to be exaggerated, but the reality is equally disturbing: a lifestyle running contrary to all the work habits that higher education stands for. There's an intriguing historical precedent at the origins of amphetamines. Introduced in 1938 under the trademark Pervitin ("for life") as the answer to American Benzedrin, they were less an imposition of Nazi authorities and military commanders (who realized individual responses varied significantly) than a popular coping mechanism for stressed wartime soldiers and civilians alike, according to a study by Dutch historians of medicine. Many students and professionals were prescribed Pervitin for performance, but others took it recreationally. And there was even an early intimation of the 1960s drug culture. The physician-writer Gottfried Benn wanted amphetamines to be used not by infantrymen but by students, to develop the human brain to new levels -- how lucky he was that he didn't live to see the decline of his ideals among undergraduates.

The trouble with considering policy for performance-enhancing use of drugs like Adderall is what was already apparent in the 1930s: people use them for different purposes, sometimes productively and sometimes disastrously, something German physicians called "the toxic equation."  But the contemporary American debate has an alarming side not present at the beginning, the idea that performance-enhancement is "cheating." Does that mean drinking at Starbucks is doping? It's a counterproductive argument because it assumes that these drugs work consistently and give users an organic advantage, as opposed to the placebo effect. It's much better to address the patterns that lead to abuse.

Image: Cainad/Flickr

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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