The smart drugs won’t work

The argument for boosting people’s mental performance with substances such as Ritalin betrays a reductive view of learning, says Paul Cooper

June 25, 2009

I tend to recoil whenever I hear of fellow academics pontificating about how people in general might improve their lives.

The suggestion by John Harris, professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester, in the British Medical Journal last week that healthy people should be able to take Ritalin to boost their academic performance brought on one such involuntary shudder.

The argument goes that so-called smart drugs are now so effective and safe that their use should no longer be confined to individuals with cognitive difficulties, such as those suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but should be made widely available to anyone who wishes to enhance their cognitive skills.

Certainly, there is good evidence to support the belief that most of us would extend our powers of concentration and capacity to go without sleep for several days were we to take an appropriate dose of certain drugs. Research also shows that psychostimulants, such as methylphenidate (MPH), are widely used by university students to enhance their academic performance, and there is anecdotal evidence that some academics not only advocate such drug use but engage in it themselves.

So imagine a world in which lecturers lecture for eight hours a day to enormous groups of highly focused and attentive students, after which everyone embarks on a further eight hours of private study. Imagine having another eight sleepless hours in which to engage in child rearing, personal and professional development, plus leisure and “body-servicing” activities, such as eating and washing. University courses could be delivered more quickly, the wastage and conflict associated with boredom and fatigue would be a thing of the past, more firsts would be awarded, and even more papers, journals and books produced. Some of this additional output might even be read!

This notion of enhancement is premised on a narrow view in which quantity trumps quality. The assumption is that getting more of something (in this case concentration) is bound to be a good thing, when in fact claims made about the educational benefits of MPH amount to an impoverished and reductive view of learning. These claims are often made in terms of enabling individuals to enhance their performance in timed, closed-book examinations. In other words, MPH helps to raise the game of individuals in an educationally dubious activity, the long-term benefits of which, in terms of retaining information, are poor.

Similarly, the idea that academics might become more productive under the influence of smart drugs raises all sorts of questions about the quantification of scholarship. For example, is it necessarily the case that the most prolific academics are the most significant?

Every field and era is influenced by loud and dominant voices, but it is intellectual merit that should characterise scholarly achievement, not productivity. After all, when considering contributions to the development of the English novel, who would rate the work of Emily Brontë (one published book) below Barbara Cartland’s (more that 600 published novels)?

MPH is a useful tool when the task in hand is experienced as unstimulating, dull and formulaic – hence its widespread, and generally successful, treatment of children with ADHD. It enables them to participate more effectively in classroom settings that place a premium on students’ ability to follow arbitrary rules and remain seated for long periods – a reminder that docility is still a highly valued commodity in mass education at all levels.

Too many of our educational institutions are dominated by a mindless managerialism that eschews engagement with difficult ideas, such as what it means to be educated, in favour of simplistic cost-benefit analyses that prize conformity to arbitrary, but quantifiable, standards.

Far from enhancing our intellectual abilities, widespread use of MPH could encourage an outmoded education system and undermine more radical approaches to learning and pedagogy at a time when innovation is desperately needed.

Some corners of the education world still see teaching and learning as creative processes and place a high value on innovative thinking and genuine critical engagement. Many school and university teachers still adhere to the central pedagogical principle that human beings are born with the capacity to learn, and that it is the role of the teacher to create an environment conducive to optimising the capacity of each individual.

In a world where all educational institutions pursued such ideals, there would be no need to apply MPH to ADHD sufferers, because the teaching requirements of those who do not think or learn in accordance with traditionally favoured patterns would be recognised.

The proposition that the use of so-called cognitive- enhancing drugs should be normalised is therefore absurd. It defies the single most important function of education – to promote the highest expression of civilisation.

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