08/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Intellectual Benefits, Emotional Costs: The Value of Attending the World's Best Universities

The London School of Economics is an inconspicuous series of academic lecture halls and classrooms that sit within a busy enclave in England's capital city. Adorning the walls of its main administrative building are the pictures of the School's past Nobel Prize winners. It is a long wall. With few exceptions, every great economic mind of the last century has passed through the doors of the LSE. To add to this are the more than forty past and present world leaders, including a former American president. For employers - particularly those in the financial sector - an LSE degree is considered the gold standard, on par with Oxford and Cambridge, a point which both Reds and Blues will angrily dispute in a reaction LSE students enjoy.

As a recent graduate of the LSE, I am as unduly proud as any recent university graduate to claim my association with the school. At its most basic level, this feeling is born from - in the words of another former LSE graduate, Lord Maurice Saatchi - a belief that the reputation of the school is such that 'serious people take you seriously.' Yet the LSE has also been witness to some of the darker periods in my life, marked by sleep deprivation and debilitating, unrelenting levels of stress - and for which its culture of success and achievement over life balance bears greatest responsibility, and at no greater time than during the two-month long exam period in the summer.

With almost all degrees at the LSE, student assessment is based wholly on end of year exams - no coursework, no mid-year exams, and no room for failure. The LSE student populace goes into crisis mode during this period. Students hunker down in the library for twelve to fifteen hour days laden with high-energy foods, coffee, and shot-sized "booster" drinks that make claims just as ridiculous as their flame-covered packaging, To add to this come the perils of self-medication in the form of Pro-Plus tablets meant to carry students through the strains of non-stop study.

This year, the self-induced inner-turmoil eating away at one student manifested itself in the early morning hours in the modern behemoth of a building that acts as the School's library. A Chinese student hoisted himself up over the railings on the third floor, cocked his head back and began to howl. I can only surmise that this act - a central part of traditional Chinese funeral ritual - was born of a belief of impending doom.

This inhospitable environment is certainly not helped by the nature of student interaction. Machiavelli is the inspiration for the warfare that prevails. Most common are the passive aggressive, insidious, displays in which one student will inflate his level of concern in an attempt to worry another - put to me recently by a victim of such tactics as an "intellectual insurgency." That this takes place at all is surprising considering the LSE does not operate a bell-curve grading system. There are even some courses where one hundred percent of students receive the highest honors - though this is rare.

It gets worse. A shift from Machiavelli to Hobbes comes about a month into the exam period. With the 'state of nature' being realized on campus, students become belligerent. Those who stand to one day steward the international political and economic climate become unscrupulous. Pages are ripped out of library books to prevent other students accessing the material. Elaborate schemes are carried out to steal exam papers. At its extreme, students resort to violence. In one example, an altercation over a "reserved" computer last year ended with a keyboard being used as a weapon.

If this degeneration is the fate of my generation, it begs the question: are the benefits of being on life's fast track worth the costs?

I'm still not sure.

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