Time to Press the Reset Button

Many of you will recall the little Chinese boy who had to go out weeping into the snow last winter in his underpants to run and do push-ups because his father wanted to instill in him a “masculine temperament.” I recall a lot of tongue clucking about Chinese child-rearing practices and stuff about tiger mothers and eagle fathers. But the tiger and the eagle have a wider habitat than just East Asia.

An article in The New York Times reports the widespread use of addictive prescription stimulants and ADHD drugs by high-school students to boost their ability to take tests and otherwise succeed at school. And why do they do it? Take Madeleine, a student interviewed by the Times reporter, who took five AP classes, went out for field hockey, and joined a number of other extracurricular activities at her school. For her the choice was easy: “Do I want only four hours of sleep and be a mess, and then underperform on the [big physics] test and then in field hockey? Or make the teachers happy, and the coach happy and get good grades, get into a good college and make my parents happy?” [emphasis added]

A number of things struck me about this report. One was that she didn’t say anything about enjoying her work or play in high school: it was all business. She even bartered tutoring and proofreading for her pills. Second, the alternative she feared was underperforming. The reason underperforming mattered more than, say, playing the game or enjoying her subjects was to be found in the alternative she sought. She wanted five things, of which three were to make the important adults in her life happy. Where are the eagles and tigers now? It is also clear which market this grim little high-performance engine was being built for: she is now a sophomore at an Ivy League college, where she uses the drugs “only” occasionally.

A seat at an Ivy League college has become a “positional good,” desirable not for any intrinsic reason[1] but for some perceived advantage or status it confers on those who hold it. The harder it is to get, the more valuable it becomes, and the more luminous its possessor (and her parents and teachers). That shows no sign of changing any time soon.

But will the study drug scene change? Already there is talk about restricting the prescription of amphetamines and ADHD drugs, but the drug-taking is only a symptom of a deeper problem and probably won’t go away even with stricter prescription standards. The deeper problem is adults who are “made happy” when Junior gets into the Ivy League or scores a field hockey goal or aces a physics test. Of course they should be happy when their children or students perform, but not only then. If they have left the poor things scrounging for drugs and flogging themselves into As and championships and pages-long résumés at the age of seventeen to make them happy, something is deeply wrong.

[1] I don’t mean to say that going to a great college does not have intrinsic value. I only mean to say that this intrinsic value is not what many people seek when they knock at its door.


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