Drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are widely known on college campuses for their ability to keep stressed-out students awake and focused for marathon study sections, but some question the ethics of being able to use these “cognitive enhancers” in an academic setting.
One school of thought sees these drugs as a necessary leg up for people with Attention Deficit Disorder [ADD] or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder [ADHD], which can cause impulsiveness, hyperactivity and inattention in children and adults. Others suggest that a level of boisterousness that would have been called normal 20 years ago has now been labeled a disease, and medication is now being prescribed where buckling down would do the trick.
From the second camp, it is easy to draw a parallel between steroids in sports and cognitive enhancers in academics. The Knox College Honor System does not make any specific statement regarding the use of these drugs, but it defines academic dishonesty as “actions giving or receiving an unfair advantage in academic work” using methods including, but not limited to, cheating.
Director of Campus Safety John Schlaf could not remember a time in which a student was caught either selling prescribed medications or buying drugs without an authorized prescription.
“While we are aware that this type of activity has been noted on campuses across the country, I don’t recall any instances [at Knox], and if there had been an arrest in something for selling such a product, that would have been addressed with the Galesburg Police Department, but I don’t recall any type of arrest activity,” Schlaf said.
Despite the lack of arrests and ambiguity in the honor code, it is clear that these drugs are being used on campus, by those both with and without prescriptions. Even those with prescriptions may not necessarily use the drug the way it is prescribed.
A Knox student who is legally prescribed Adderall for ADHD but who wishes to remain anonymous said, “During finals I use [Adderall] on a daily basis, but in general, [not daily], which is not how I’m supposed to use it.”
The student said she uses Adderall when she has a specific task to accomplish.
“The way I see it, ADHD is only a problem if you have to do something that ADHD makes you bad at. Most of the time, I like being able to multitask, but unfortunately I don’t know how to uni-task,” she said.
The student said that although she believes that ADHD is currently over-diagnosed, she feels that her own diagnosis was legitimate.
“I’m biased, of course, but I was definitely a behavior problem in grade school. My mom and I didn’t do anything about it then because we didn’t want to mess with my personality, but by the time I got to college it was like, OK, I could use a hand here.”
Still, she has considered the ethical implications of her prescription use.
“If ADHD is a smokescreen for me not trying hard enough, then I guess it’s ethically questionable,” she said.
Besides Adderall and Ritalin, other cognitive enhancement drugs are coming onto the scene. Examples include Piracetam, which many consider the first ‘smart drug,’ and Provigil, which helps people stay awake and is generally prescribed to narcoleptics.
One Knox student, who also wished to remain anonymous, participated in a study testing the effects of Piracetam and said, “It made me feel alert, calm, and I could focus intently on whatever I wanted. [However], I had little control over what I focused on. [If] I was staring at my pants, I could stare at my pants for like a day if I had enough Piracetam.”
For this student the drug worked well for reading retention and he plans to try the drug again, but he doesn’t believe it should be allowed on test days.
“It should be used to attain knowledge,” he said, “but on test days it should just be you and the test.”
Junior Jordan Stoune has served as a Residential Advisor in Post Hall for the past two years. She said that she has heard more mention of students using cognitive enhancers this year than last year. “I’ve heard a few people say they want to take Adderall to stay up all night. I’m sure they do [Adderall]. They probably do other drugs [like it], I’ve just specifically heard things about Adderall,” she said, explaining that she heard these things from students other than her own residents.
“I actually didn’t hear about anyone doing [these drugs] until this year. I didn’t know people did it until this year,”
When asked if she had ethical reservations about the drugs, she said, “I think people should only use them when they’re prescribed. [Knox is] an environment where education and academics are honored. You shouldn’t have to take something to stay up all night and study. If study habits could be better, people wouldn’t have to do that. I also think there’s a lot of pressure on students so that people feel like they have to.”
Katie Peterson, ’08, did her senior research in psychology on this topic.
“More and more people are picking up on the trend of students using prescription stimulants for academic reasons. Also, more competitive schools report a higher rate of use among students. It’s confusing, though, because the people that use for school don’t usually have higher GPAs,” she said.
Peterson also researched cognitive enhancement drugs in relation to perfectionist traits in students. “Most of the big arguments focus [on] making the point that tons of people are abusing stimulants now, mostly because the rate of prescribing stimulants has shot up since 1990, and at the same time we are coming to realize that these drugs are essentially doing the same thing in the brain that coke does in terms of rewards – the more rewarding a drug the more addicting it is – conditioning, learning, and behavior.”