When a culture values individualism as a virtue, it sends a message to young people that what really matters in life is your performance. To make matters worse, this performance pressure is coupled with the idea that unless you are on top, you just don’t matter. In fact, if you sprinkle in a little anxiety about being materially successful in life on top of individualism you have the recipe for moral compromise. This is exactly what is happening on high school and college campuses across the West. Just as athletes are known for taking performance enhancing drugs in high school and college, students are falling prey to taking performance enhancing drugs to increase their test scores.
College professors are opening up to the idea of drug testing students for the use of “smart drugs” before exams just as we might test athletes for steroids before a major competition. The Telegraph newspaper recently reported the following:
Professor Barbara Sahakian, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, said students should expect to be screened for the “smart drugs”, as is done in competitive sports. Ritalin and other drugs that can improve concentration are prescribed to treat ADHD, an attention deficit disorder, but Professor Sahakian has warned that thousands of desperate students are now buying the drug through the blackmarket and online.
Academics say the number of students using the drugs has steadily risen over the last few years as they say the pressure to do well increased during the recession, with some students even faking symptoms of ADHD in order to get prescriptions of Ritalin.
According to the article, a recent survey of Cambridge University students revealed that one in ten has taken drugs such as Ritalin, Modanil, and Adderall and one third of respondents they would take concentration-enhancing drugs if given the opportunity. The complaints from non-drug using students are made to college administrators but to no avail.
The smart drug problem is now a growing concern at the high school level here in the US as well. To date, an estimated 15% to 40% of students at high-achieving high schools use prescription stimulants to get ahead of their peers, writes Alan Swartz in the New York Times. According to Swartz, “the pressure over grades and competition for college admissions are encouraging students to abuse prescription stimulants.” These pills “are going from rare to routine in many academically competitive high schools, where teenagers say they get them from friends, buy them from student dealers or fake symptoms to their parents and doctors to get prescriptions,” observes Swartz. In the past students might use cocaine to enhance their academic performance but with the exponential rise in ADD and ADHD diagnoses in recent years drugs like Ritalin are in the dorm room next door.
Who’s to blame for this? All of us. When parents conditionally love and praise children for their academic performance, when a society teaches that life is a race and the only life worth living is at “the top,” when parents threaten “flipping burgers” as a consequence of not getting into the “right college,” when the “good life” is reduced to the accumulation of material things and financial “security,” when the love of money is cloaked using the language of “wisdom,” and the like, our children respond in kind. Children will do whatever it takes to win the approval of the adults who love them and they internalize the expectations of those they respect. Alternatively, imagine what could happen if we communicated to our children that what matters in life is that one is committed to “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable,” excellent or praiseworthy (Phil 4:8). Virtue might rule instead of the emptiness of performance and we all know that the West could use a little more of that.