Ritalin before an exam fails the test of common sense

Students don’t need to be tested for drugs before exams – the idea of Ritalin being performance-enhancing is bogus.

Here’s the latest panic about drugs. Students are, apparently, taking drugs to give them an academic edge. Some are taking Ritalin, the medicine more typically used to treat ADHD – it seems to make them feel sharper on exam day, and might improve concentration and short-term memory. So academics are worried that these dopers might have an advantage unavailable to people who can’t, or won’t, get hold of the drugs. In a survey, as many as 10% say they’ve done it. Oh dear, people are saying. Test them! Root them out!

But should we really worry about drugs enhancing academic performance? For centuries, people have got it into their heads that taking drugs might improve one’s mental state. Three hundred years ago, it was thought that smoking opium fired the imagination, and might have figured in some of Coleridge’s best poetry. Sure, it makes you feel like a poet. But it doesn’t, in my experience, make you write like one. You stare at things, such as bricks or drainpipes, and think new thoughts about them. But I don’t think drugs or drink can make you write good poetry; it’s just that artist-types tend to drink and get high, because being an artist is so frustrating.

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