“Performance-enhancing drugs” is a phrase we’ve all heard, most recently in the case of Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of his titles for the reported use of the aforementioned drugs. They are, of course, banned in competitive sporting events. The reason is trivial; if one can become the victor in a contest of physical prowess simply by ingesting a chemical, the contest is rendered moot. Anyone can swallow a pill. However, there is a rapidly growing trend that is similar, but not quite the same: academic doping.
This refers to the academic use of cognition-enhancing drugs, collectively referred to as nootropics. Nootropics include a number of different compounds, but the largest category is stimulants, including Adderall, Ritalin, and of course, caffeine. Off-label use of these drugs for academic purposes is on the rise: a rash of media coverage has arisen in recent years concerning the use of nootropics by students.
It is tempting to simply say that any such use of these drugs is unethical – a blanket ban – and be done with it, much like in competitive sports. However, I think that to do so is disingenuous. Academics is not about proving one individual to be superior, it is about absorbing and retaining knowledge and developing skills. If these substances help attain that goal, then isn’t it just another way to improve one’s learning? To wit: individuals capable of employing the method of loci (Google it) can memorize large quantities of arbitrary information and recall it on command. On many tests, such an individual would have a considered advantage over someone incapable of employing the mnemonic. Would that be an unfair advantage?
Consider: one student can afford private tutors, while another is left to his or her own devices while studying. A student who rehearses with flashcards and self-tests performs better than someone who simply reads over the material repeatedly. And of course, one gets a good night’s sleep, while another stays up late studying and simply buys a large coffee before this morning’s exam. The point is that the distinctions we draw between ”fair” and “unfair” advantages are entirely artificial, and begin to blur under examination.
Caffeine is the most heavily consumed cognition enhancer in the world. In order to remain consistent in saying nootropics are unfair, we have to ban it too. No more coffee, no more Coke, no more Mountain Dew. Get enough sleep or suffer through a haze of fatigue for the day. Doesn’t seem like a great prospect, does it?
So where do we draw the line? Being able to buy an advantage, like private tutoring? Use of mnemonic devices, or particular methods of studying? Diet? +I hardly profess to have an absolute answer. But my thinking goes something like this: people who take nootropics have an advantage, sure. So do people who have the money for tutors or the willpower to stay in and study or people who know mnemonics.
But personally, I think people who rely on these drugs are shooting themselves in their metaphorical feet. Sooner or later one develops a tolerance, then you need to take more to get the same effect. When you eventually have to abandon the drug due to side effects, your enhanced capacities disappear and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. Not to mention that it seems like this all has grown out of a culture of perfectionism and studying for the test, that is, an emphasis on maximizing test scores over actual retention and comprehension of the material.
I don’t think these drugs confer an unfair advantage. I think they confer an advantage that is buffered by dramatic drawbacks, and if we want to reduce the prevalence of academic doping, we should look at modifying our culture and educational system that makes students feel like they need to take these drugs to succeed.