Essay on the Harvard Business School Case Method: continued

MBAs and Corporate Governance

The Harvard Business School Way

Today's universities, perpetually under-funded and terminally venal, have no qualms about pasting together fanciful curricula for their young, naïve, and materialistic clientele.

Having by now, like the Soviets, renounced religion and adopted pseudo-scientific economic theory, they are more than ready to pretend to lead would-be managers into the world of Big Business and Big Government, guided by a secular moral-relativism under which there can be no right and wrong to burden the consciences of the coming movers and shakers.

There is no need for Great Books (especially if constrained by a politically incorrect 'Western' tradition) – the Harvard Business School Case Method will stand in their place:

In 2004, the Harvard Business School (HBS) prided itself in educating 'leaders who make a difference in the world'.

HBS saw the general manager as:

'a role that requires a deep grounding in not only hard analytical skills, but also in the strategies, ideas, and habits of mind that constitute leadership – the ability to define overarching organizational goals, to achieve them by inspiring other people who may think very differently, to make important decisions with inadequate information, to seize opportunities in the face of doubt—in short, to respond creatively to change, and to create change that makes a positive difference.'

('MBA Program 2004-2005', brochure, Harvard Business School)

The emphasis was on problem solving, goal setting, and making rapid-fire snap decisions based on insufficient information, within a shifting 'ethical framework'.

Character Building vs. Moral Relativism

Old-fashioned character-building, without relativistic quibbling, once a preoccupation of educators (and still alive at places like West Point and Brigham Young University), was not on the HBS agenda.

The mission statement of the United States Military Academy at West Point is:

'to educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country; professional growth throughout a career as an officer in the United States Army; and a lifetime of selfless service to the nation.'

The mission statement of Brigham Young University points to developing:

'a broadly prepared individual [who] will not only be capable of meeting personal challenge and change but will also bring strength to others in the tasks of home and family life, social relationships, civic duty, and service to mankind.'

In the HBS 2003-2004 brochure, the words honor, wisdom, courage, honesty, virtue, integrity, duty, morals, decency, persistence, truth or truthfulness, trustworthiness, sincerity, or fairness did not appear even once.

The words honor, wisdom, courage, honesty, virtue, integrity, duty, morals, decency, persistence, truthfulness, sincerity, and fairness were not in the HBS brochure.

There was a passing reference to 'responsible managers who are guided by a sense of purpose and ideals' and about developing an 'ethical framework to use as a guide for decision-making', but it was plain that under the dictates of moral relativism, one 'ethical framework' was as good as another.

Like Time Magazine's basis for selecting the Man of the Year, the HBS ethics-blind standard of 'leaders who make a difference in the world' could fit Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Jeffrey Skilling (of Enron), Robert McNamara, George W. Bush, or Mother Theresa of Calcutta.

Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Mother Theresa of Calcutta were not HBS graduates, while the others were.

However, to fully comprehend the extent to which moral relativism is inculcated in Masters of Business Administration, we need to examine that most esteemed jewel in the HBS curriculum, the Case Method – a pedagogic technique that had been copied at hundreds of business schools worldwide.

The Case Method and Relativistic Thinking

A 'case' is a story, researched and written by a professor, based (more or less) on a 'real world' business situation, accompanied by some tables, graphs, financial statements, and other selected evidence, which may or may not be relevant, and related to some area of business management under study, such as marketing, finance, production management, or corporate governance.

The purpose of a particular case is usually either to determine the problem that is presented, or, if the problem is already stated, what the solution might be.

The Case Method is a tool to teach persuasion, rather than ethical decision-making.

However, since students are told beforehand that there is no 'right answer', the Case Method is an exercise in relativistic thinking.

Without basic concepts of right or wrong to guide decision-making, the Case Method creates amoral leaders.

Like debaters that use rhetoric to win any side of an argument, MBAs are taught to be skilled in presenting 'facts' and 'crunching numbers', while spicing their arguments with buzzwords that induce others to support their objectives.

MBAs are indoctrinated with the idea that a determined attitude, backed by a persuasive analysis and the appearance of received wisdom is the key to success. As one teacher put it,

'Be prepared to support any and all opinions and recommendations with well-reasoned arguments and numerical evidence. Purge 'I think' and 'I feel' from your assessment. Instead, rely on statements such as 'The analysis shows …'.

('Northern Arizona University, MBA Program, Case Method Approach', found on the Internet on September 29, 2020 at:

This is counsel for a rhetorician rather than for a principled business leader. There can be no room for an ethical argument about 'the right thing to do', because there is no right and wrong.

The Case Method Described

The following quote, attributed to a professor at the Harvard Business School, describes the effect that the Case Method had on students ('Northern Arizona University, MBA Program, Case Method Approach', op cit.)

'More intense effort, both from students and instructors, is required for case learning than for any other form of instruction I have encountered.

Though the instructor may feel uncomfortable about his or her inability to control what contributions may be made in the classroom, the power of case learning is awesome.

I am continually amazed at how much men and women change, in the short time of their first year at the Harvard Business School.

When they begin, they attack problems with raw, groping, undirected energy which more often than not leads them nowhere.

In a short period of constant exposure to cases, they deal with the same ambiguous problem sets in a focused, assured manner which leads to firm and informed action regardless of the problem's fuzziness or the incompleteness of the facts [sic].

The reasons for such sweeping changes from the case method of learning…seem to include these:

  • The student is forced, by exposure to basically insoluble problems with no right answer [sic], to formulate his or her own personally workable approach [sic] to problem definition and formulation.

  • Other learning methods teach some set of approved answers, and send students in search of problems to which to apply them. The case method teaches students to learn for themselves what the problems are and how to define the questions.

  • Repetitive exposure to these ambiguous problems has a remarkable confidence-building effect on those who eventually must deal with similar problems in management. What the psychologists call 'tolerance for ambiguity' is cultured directly by case learning.

The instructor should constantly encourage students to drive toward specific actions in spite of incomplete information, uncertain circumstances, and unclear problems.

Though this can sometimes provoke premature action, such a model is much more consistent with the way the 'real world' works than is an insistence on complete information or unattainable certainty.'

Can Five Hundred Cases Produce Wisdom?

At the turn of the century, a HBS student was given fourteen cases to study each week, in addition to preparing and reading for regular lecture courses. Before graduating, the student was exposed to five hundred cases – between two and three cases each day.

The case method is a recipe for shallow-thinking, fast-talking, bull-shit artists.

Since the university admitted that these cases had no right and wrong answers, one goal of the case method seems to have been to inculcate young managers with the arrogance needed to make quick decisions that would affect the lives of hundred or thousands of others, on any subject, without adequate knowledge of the facts, and with blind disregard of any need for further study.

This is a recipe guaranteed to produce shallow-thinking, fast-talking, bull-shit artists. In the 'real world', executives usually have weeks, months, or even years to arrive at critical decisions.

Essay: continued >

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