Cognitive triage in higher education

A few months ago I wrote about the notion of ‘cognitive triage’ put forward in Kevin Roose’s book about young recruits on Wall Street. He suggests that the intensity of the situational demands placed upon them necessitates attending only to the most immediate and concrete concerns, pushing out all other considerations which might lead them to reflect upon their current circumstances:

Today, as before the financial crisis, it’s not uncommon for a first-year IBD analyst to work one hundred hours a week—the equivalent of sixteen hours a day during the week, then a mere ten hours on each weekend day. Which is not to say that these twenty-two-year-olds are actively doing one hundred hours’ worth of work every week. In fact, many sit around idly for hours a day, listening to music or reading their favorite blogs while they wait for a more senior banker to assign them work. (These drop-offs are never pleasant, but they’re worst when they happen at 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. as the senior banker is leaving for the day, giving the analyst a graveyard shift’s worth of work before he or she can go home and sleep.)

The compartmentalization phenomenon turned out to be bigger than Jeremy and Samson, and bigger even than Goldman Sachs. As I interviewed dozens of young analysts at firms across the financial sector, I heard the same kinds of answers to my questions about morality and ethics: “I don’t know, I never really think about it.” “I’m just trying not to fuck up.” “Dude, I’m so far away from anything like that…” Entry-level analysts, it seemed, were so routinely exhausted, and so minutely focused on their day-to-day tasks—on pleasing their bosses, nailing every page of their pitch books, and avoiding getting in trouble—that they often avoided thinking about the big picture. It was a sort of cognitive triage, and daily concerns always took priority over long-term, large-scale worries. Still, there was no doubt that these worries existed.

What I’m curious about is whether we can see cognitive triage of this sort within higher education. As people rush through an academic term, struggling to keep on top of their commitments, how do their time horizons change? If your focus goes no further than tomorrow’s deadline (or the one after that) then what are the implications of this for your capacity for serious scholarship and considered reflection? What about the quality of your life?

Categories: Higher Education

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