Matt Lamkin argues that universities shouldn’t ban cognitive-enhancing drugs like Ritalin and Adderall. Lamkin is a lawyer and, like myself, a master’s candidate in bioethics. He rightly believes that a ban would do little to promote fairness or safety among students. The rule followers would be at a disadvantage while the rule-breakers would be at a greater safety risk. But Lamkin doesn’t believe we, as a society, should be ok with cognitive enhancement usage. Instead, he argues:
The word “cheating” has another meaning, one that has nothing to do with competition. When someone has achieved an end through improper means, we might say that person has “cheated herself” out of whatever rewards are inherent in the proper means. The use of study drugs by healthy students could corrode valuable practices that education has traditionally fostered. If, for example, students use such drugs to mitigate the consequences of procrastination, they may fail to develop mental discipline and time-management skills.
On the other hand, Ritalin might enable a student to engage more deeply in college and to more fully experience its internal goods—goods she might be denied without that assistance. The distinction suggests that a blanket policy, whether of prohibition or universal access, is unlikely to be effective.
Instead, colleges need to encourage students to engage in the practice of education rather than to seek shortcuts. Instead of ferreting out and punishing students, universities should focus on restoring a culture of deep engagement in education, rather than just competition for credentials.
Lamkin’s argument is that cog-enhancers are an easy way out for those in school. Struggling to study builds character and good habits. Though he disapproves of cog-enhancers, I appreciate his hesitancy to involve the law. Lamkin doesn’t believe policing cog-enhancing drug usage is necessary, but would prefer honor codes opposing cog-enhancing drugs. He believes honor codes cause one to “internalize” the value of not using the drug. What is curious is that Lamkin doesn’t actually address what Ritalin and Adderall do for a student. As a person who has a legit prescription for Ritalin, and who knows his fair share of folks who’ve taken Adderall off-label, I believe I can speak to how cog-enhancers work in at least an anecdotal sense.
On the Popular Mechanics Web site, Eric Sofge complained a couple months ago that big, lumbering comic-book movies are sucking the life from the already shaky genre of intelligent Hollywood science fiction movies. His concern is not just artistic: He worries that the rise of the Iron Men and Spider-Men and the vanishing of think-oriented movies like Blade Runner is taking away the one piece of Tinseltown culture that inspires viewers to think, and maybe even act, like scientists.
It’s a clever, well-intentioned argument. I just don’t buy it for a minute. The line between smart scifi and dumb superhero scifi is not as clear as Erik tries to make it. Where would you put RoboCop and Total Recall, for instance? Lord of the Rings nurtured many a science nerd, even though there’s not a speck of realism in it; on the other side, Star Trek (original and all other flavors) has plenty of mumbo jumbo moments in it to rival Iron Man’s suit or Bruce Banner’s irradiated cells.
To my mind, the most effective scifi stories depend on two key factors: dealing with imaginary science & technology in a logically consistent manner, and being sensitive to its human implications. That’s what made Blade Runner and Terminator so great. At their best, the Iron Man and Spider-Man comics worked because they weren’t about the science at all; they were, like Batman, about life-transforming events that caused their heroes to deal with issues we all deal with, but on a wildly magnified scale. In short, they were almost all about the human side. Sure, their attention to realism was abysmal, but they were quite appealingly attentive to the idea of having to rely on your wits to succeed.
Is it so bad to tell kids to look up to a brilliant but socially awkward kid who used his smarts to fight crime and social injustice? And does Erik Sofge really want to argue that Outland and Saturn 3 were a big help in furthering the cause of science education in this country? If so…well, good luck with that, Erik.