Malbreaux: Achievement Over Agency?

Performance enhancing and study drugs endanger traditional metrics of success.

by Tyler Malbreaux | 9/18/18 2:20am

Seeing so many freshmen on campus in the past week made me reminisce on what my freshman fall was like. Before I began looking for any and all club sports and extracurricular activities to join, most of my time was just spent in classes. I remember really enjoying my Writing 5, “Contemporary Moral Issues.” We’d spend several weeks tackling big issues — physician-assisted suicide, capital punishment, abortion — and consider the legal and moral implications of each.

What intrigued me most was our unit on enhancement drugs. Our discussions ranged from issues with steroids used by Olympic athletes to beta blockers used by competing violinists. One question, a central yet elusive and unanswerable one, appeared again and again: Is the use of these drugs fair?

Although I had heard of athletes in high school who injected themselves with mysterious, potentially lethal doses of muscle-growing potions, I never had much direct experience with them, as their use was a well-known urban legend but always unverifiable. Some of those athletes, in addition to many other students, used drugs to advance in the classroom as well. Though the exact numbers of those who were prescribed pills like Vyvanse or Adderall was unclear, it appeared to me that abuse was rampant, especially around finals periods.

Even then, I never thought too much about fairness. For me, the stakes didn’t seem high enough to warrant any form of drug abuse. It was only high school, after all.

Coincidentally, around the time I was taking my Writing 5 class, I became much more cognizant of enhancement drug abuse on campus. Any upperclassman knows that one need not look too hard to find underground pharmacies supplying pills to improve focus for that all-nighter study session or writing a heavily-weighted essay.

It’s not a problem that affects only Dartmouth, although the glut of ADHD medicines is particularly high at elite colleges. A 2012 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 18 percent of Ivy League students reported using these medicines at least once, and 24 percent of said group used them on at least eight occasions. Perhaps the more troubling finding of that study is that a large number of students see nothing wrong with their usage. A 33 percent did not consider enhancement drug use as a form of cheating, and an additional 25 percent were not sure.

Of course, this is not to say that some students do not have legitimate reasons to use medication to focus. It would be equally reckless to suggest that attention deficit disorders are parental excuses for their children to perform well in school. But many specialists in the field agree that the number of ADHD diagnoses in the United States, currently over 3.5 million, are a severe inflation — one that, if the statistics were true, would indicate an epidemic.

The number of Americans on ADHD medication is worrying for two reasons. First, there are intuitive health risks for those who are not clinically diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Prolonged use of these drugs has been linked to problems with high blood pressure and abnormal heart rate. The second reason is less observable, but the implications are perhaps even more disturbing. Those who use enhancement drugs that are not prescribed to them willingly give up their agency in pursuit of perfection. In the case of the Ivy League students who participated in the 2012 study, it was perfecting a GPA or maintaining an already over-scheduled, busy lifestyle that balances school and other commitments. Other modes of finding ways to be productive, such as psychodynamic therapy or counseling, are forsaken for a “quick fix” that is destructive and unsustainable in the long run.

In thinking about perfection and the use of technology to alter brain function, I am reminded of an episode of Charlie Brookers’ “Black Mirror” series. The central conflict of the episode, “Men Against Fire,” features a NATO-esque command of soldiers defending local villagers from hideous proto-zombies called “roaches.” The main character, Stripe, is a private who quickly logs his first roach kill while out on assignment. But Stripe does not rely on any innate skill as a marksman. A software implanted in his brain called “MASS” aids him in perfecting his hand-eye coordination. Pulling the trigger is watered down into a high-stakes game of simple point-and-shoot.

I think of this episode in particular because performance drug enhancers and MASS are similar technologies, albeit one is in pill form. Both perfect human abilities and ameliorate human imperfections. More importantly, their use begs the question: How do we redefine what it means to be human? As the military psychiatrist in the show tells Stripe, MASS is able to “suspend” the natural urge for humans to empathize with each other by literally disguising human faces and turning them into targets. And the results are horrendous.

Similarly, in elite academic institutions across America, what does it mean for a student to function well only when aided by powerful drugs? To whom, or what, does one even attribute their high grades and success more generally? While the situation may be less dire than the one presented in “Black Mirror,” students should be wary of how easily they brush off performance drug abuse.