At a school as stressful as Columbia, a pill with the power to keep you focused for hours has a strong appeal. Many students at Columbia pop some Adderall before hitting Butler, study longer, stay up later, and get more words on the page at the end of the day. Some may say that Adderall makes them feel “superhuman.” Fooled by the subjective experience of enhanced concentration, many students misguidedly believe that the drug reveals a superior state of mind. Yet even as a first-year, I have seen some of my closest friends abuse Adderall as they wrongfully normalize the drug as a convenient study aid.
The Netflix documentary Take Your Pills by director Alison Klayman is one of the first major pieces to expose the rampant, yet unpublicized, student use of unprescribed stimulants to gain a competitive edge in school. Yet the documentary fails to consider why college students continue to swear by Adderall as a cognitive enhancement if it does not improve one’s higher mental processing. While Adderall may heighten memorization as a consequence of prolonged hours spent staring at a computer screen, the drug does nothing to enhance the more important skills of critical thinking and creativity.
My own friends and many other students rely on the promise of Adderall to provide them with machine-like efficacy and endurance. Convinced that stimulants are necessary to compete at the highest level, they claw their way to the top of the class on coffee and 10 milligrams pills to outscore their peers.
Take for example my friend from high school, Olivia. She was the “perfect” student, one who arranged her colored pens on her desk at the beginning of each AP Biology class and took notes that I looked at with envy. In her pencil case, alongside those colored pens, she kept her plastic bottle of not-so-discreetly labelled Adderall pills. She obsessed over grades and college admissions. But while she was able to memorize an infinite amount of material and kill the multiple choice questions, she could never respond as well to the free response questions, which demanded a synthesis of deeper concepts. Adderall failed to stimulate her higher cognition.
To put it bluntly, millennials exploit Adderall out of the false hope that it will enable them to achieve society’s narrow version of success. Throughout my first semester at Columbia, I realized that my friend from high school was not the only one who seemed to have confused higher cognition with memorization. I remember waiting outside Havemeyer 309 for my first chemistry midterm. Half boastingly and half nervously, a close friend mentioned how she pulled an all-nighter on Adderall to cram for the exam, how the drug gave her the power to memorize every note on every lecture slide over the span of a single night. As students turn to Adderall as a study aid, they overvalue the more mechanical skill of memorization, which in turn depreciates the value of higher mental processing.
But Adderall abuse on college campuses is merely a symptom of the larger social epidemic: For a student to earn recognized success, he or she must fit into the rigid mold of an ideal student which values memorization over interpretation. Burdened by the suffocating expectation to achieve society's narrow definition of success, a surprising number of my peers continue to alter their brain chemistries to better align with the idea of the model student.
Students today find it easier to change the biochemical makeup of our brains with a smart pill than to redefine the meaning of success in society at-large. And we lose parts of ourselves in the process. We lose aspects of our creativity and individualism—the qualities that enable us to approach becoming “superhuman.” Adderall changed the person I sat next to in AP Biology. Olivia rarely laughed at my awful jokes the way she did before starting Adderall. Instead, she dismissed them as foolish or nonsensical and returned her attention to her perfectly color-coded notes.
As Columbia students, we will always strive to achieve exceptional grades on our papers and exams—oftentimes more than willing to rely on the false promise of a study drug in the process. No doubt about that. However, once we retire our pens and pencils after handing in our assignments, we must decide who we are outside of the four walls of a lecture hall.
We must recognize that individuals with seemingly superhuman abilities like Bill Gates and Serena Williams are not those who simply earn the highest test scores. Ultimately, we become the most impressive versions of ourselves when we focus on the distinct features that set us apart from the superficial model of an ideal academic.
The author is a first-year in Columbia College from Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
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