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Neurostimulants are symptom, not disease

The Office of Student Conduct has upped the ante for students who use cognitive-enhancing prescription drugs. Last Friday, the Office of Student Conduct notified the student body of the changes to the Duke Community Standard, which now condemns the use of prescription cognitive-enhancing drugs, like Ritalin and Adderall, as a violation of the University’s academic policy. In the past, the use of these cognitive enhancements earned a slap on the wrist—transgressions fell into same effete University drug policy that wags a finger at consumption of alcohol by minors. Now violations fall into more sacred ground: a student’s academic standing.

A ban makes sense in the hyper-competitive arena of an elite college. Stephen Bryan, associate dean of students and director of the Office of Student Conduct, is right to chalk up the policy to a symbolic gesture; drug use is tough to trace and even tougher to curb. But the mere existence of this new designation stigmatizes this behavior as an academic crime. Students who use these drugs now must concern themselves not only with legal repercussions, but also with the stigma and potential consequences of cheating. The new policy creates yet another disincentive for this type of drug use.

The policy recognizes that cognitive-enhancing drugs impact not only their users but the student communities that surround them. In a university setting, students compete for resources, opportunities and even grades. A student who has access to cognitive-enhancing drugs gains an advantage akin to the advantage of football player on steroids. The existence of this new policy signifies both students’ and administrators’ joint resolution to create a fair playing field for all.

But the very availability of these playing field metaphors is cause for reflection on the University’s academic life. That necessity of this policy cedes the idea of academic pursuit as a contest. Cognitive enhancements sought to promise only growth for a student population bent on academics as an end in itself. But the new policy does not exist because these drugs stymie education; it exists because these drugs create inequities in a competitive learning environment.

The notion of undergraduate academics as a contest pervades our campus. Classes with curved grading systems judge students only insofar as they exceed or are exceeded by their peers—one student’s success depends on another’s failure. Instead of fostering the idea of learning as an end in itself, this grading structure pits students against one another in pursuit of a high mark.

The pre-professional attitude of many students similarly generates competition in academic settings. Students see their peers as direct competition for job offers or spots in graduate and professional school. With this mind set, many students strive not only to do well themselves, but also to do better than their competitors—that is, their classmates.

Use of cognitive-enhancing drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, especially in a college setting, has real, tangible consequences on academic life that an adjustment of the Duke Community Standard stands to mitigate. Few other universities have incorporated such policies, signifying that Duke has taken the lead on this issue. But, in the end, this decision tells us less about these drugs than it does about ourselves.


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