Making better students: ADHD in higher education and the biopolitics of stimulant medication
According to my 2016 survey of ASU undergraduate students, 33% have used stimulant medications (e.g. Adderall or Ritalin) without a prescription to study. I view this practice as a step towards cognitive enhancement, which is the deliberate application of biotechnology to radically alter the human condition. From a foresight perspective, the ability to actively improve human beings, to take our evolutionary destiny into our own hands, may be a turning point on par with agriculture or the use of fossil fuels. The existential risks, however, may be greater than the benefits—and many of the most radical technologies have made little documented progress.
I turn to an actual example where people are trying to make themselves marginally better at academic tasks, as a guide to how future transformative development in human enhancement may be incorporated into everyday practice. This project examines the history and context that led to the widespread use of stimulant medication on college campuses. I describe how Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), for which stimulant medication is prescribed and diverted, governs students, negotiates relationships between parents and school authorities, and manages anxieties resulting from a competitive neoliberal educational system. I extend this archeology of ADHD through the actions and ethical beliefs of college students, and the bioethical arguments for and against human enhancement. Through this work, I open a new space for an expanded role for universities as institutions capable of creating experimental communities supporting ethical cognitive enhancement.