I do believe that ADD and ADHD are real. However, I do not believe they are as prevalent as the diagnoses suggest. A recent article in the New York Times (online) took this concern to a new dimension, for me at least, with the revelation that students, in response to the high stakes and pressures for academic achievement, have taken to abusing the stimulants typically prescribed for ADD/ADHD.
As troubling as this drug use is, it is a symptom of a much larger problem in our society and our education system: we are test obsessed and we have created a subset of society for whom there is prestige and glory in being over-scheduled and over-stressed rather than in being intelligent.
So here's the question: who is it that makes school so hard that kids turn to these measures?
In a tangentially related topic, my teaching partner and I were visiting today about Harvard. We wondered: what might it be like to just sit in on a course there? Would the discussions be over our heads? Or would we find the same kind of talking, thinking, and reading that we found in our own educations at public universities, mine in Oregon and his in Washington?
My assertion: it's more about the packaging and the collective identity than it is any significant difference in the product. When we as a society tacitly agree that "Harvard" or "U-Dub" means something more than something else, we are categorizing something that may not always be worthy of the categorization. Do these institutions provide a better education, or are they simply better at only allowing access to those candidates who will perpetuate the collective identity? If little ol' County College only let in kids with a 4.0, high AP success and mountains of volunteer hours, guess what would happen to its reputation?
The point of my digression: I have many kids who are heading off to community college and trade schools next year. Some are the middle-of-the-bell curve kids. Good people. Hard workers. Many of them far more intelligent than their classmates who got into more prestigious institutions. Considering how few American students who start a college actually finish, I have a hard time buying into the premise that a prestigious university really is worth it.
In other words, as long as we tell ourselves that success requires stress and overwork, we will paint into our lives stress and overwork in order to give the illusion of success.
Would those AP kiddos be homeless and derelict if they didn't earn a high score on the AP exam? Would their lives fall apart if they didn't go to dance and fencing and piano? Would they never find a good job and a worthy mate if they didn't put themselves into a schedule that tricked them into thinking they needed to abuse prescription stimulants in order to "succeed"?
As an interesting sidenote, as I closed the year with my two classes of seniors, I posed the question "what was the most creative way a classmate ever got away with cheating?" My first period, wherein 23 out of 30 were enrolled in at least one AP class this year, was able to generate a lengthy (and terrifying) list. My second period, with only 2 out of 28 taking AP classes, had exactly three examples...and don't get me wrong, they're the kind of crew that if they knew more, they'd have told!
We have a big problem here.