Chapter 6: The Case Method in Business Education

The Provoked Economy devotes the first part of its sixth chapter (“Realizing business value”) to a particularly vivid illustration of the problem of the simulacrum in business life: the case method of instruction in business administration (yes, the jewel of the particular blend of business pedagogy developed at the Harvard Business School). Well, the section is a bit short, alas. There is no in-depth ethnography of case teaching and learning (in this respect, the author is more than happy to refer the reader to Michel Anteby‘s excellent Manufacturing Morals). Instead, after a brief reference to Michel Foucault an a two-pages description of a case method session, the chapter goes straight to the point:

“This can surely be an entertaining experience, but sometimes also a deeply transformative one, too, especially for the ones who dare, for the ones who display the mental courage to stand up and defend their business views in an articulate and brilliant manner, i.e. the ones who find there, emerging, their business selves. You may be wondering why I have not used the world ‘simulacrum’ so far, right? Indeed, here we are. A simulacrum of the business act: really doing it, though not for real, so as to be able to bear it. A performance of the live act of business. Is not what lies beneath the very idea of ‘courage to act’ what the would-be businessperson ought to embrace? Is it not about enduring business decision?” (p. 99)

Then the chapter takes the reader to the early days (1920s, 1930s) and spends some pages on one of the author’s favorite authors. That would be Arthur Stone Dewing, professor of finance at the Harvard Business School, vitalist philosopher, and great early advocate of the existential features of the case method:

“Forget about truth, look into purpose; forget about knowledge, look into action. It is interesting to observe how Dewing, once converted to the pedagogy of business, found in the case method a suitable medium for this kind of philosophical impulse: education is about ‘acquiring facility to act in the presence of new experience’, about training ‘to act’ rather than ‘to know’, about dealing with novelty rather than ‘with the departing old’” (p. 101)

Follows a look at the 1960s and 1970s — which means of course referring to C. Roland Christensen and his development of the experiential, pragmatist features of the case method — and at the 2000s — which means referring to the current, anthropological house motto, i.e. “knowing, doing, and being”. The case method of instruction in business administration is obviously performative in more than one sense of the word. But the focus on the production (felicitous of not) of nothing less than a “business self” through the crafts of the simulacrum (becoming a businessperson by doing the businessperson thing) is definitely an angle that deserves attention.

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