Harvard’s David Moss is using the case study method to teach history

Historians in the News
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Using the case study method, Harvard Business School historian David Moss examines pivotal moments in American history where disagreement and conflict reshaped our democracy for the better.

Is the Affordable Care Act eroding economic growth? Did the opposition steal a Supreme Court appointment from President Barack Obama? Did President Trump have a record large crowd at his inauguration?

In these divided times when seemingly everything — no matter how minor or how true — gets litigated largely along partisan lines, it’s tempting to see tension and vigorous political disagreement as counterproductive, even harmful, to the smooth functioning of a healthy democracy.

But historian David Moss, the Paul Whiton Cherington Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (HBS), says that while consensus and cooperation certainly seem like national goals worth aspiring toward, in reality democracy has always been “a contact sport,” and that’s all right. It can even be a good thing.

In a new book, “Democracy: A Case Study” (Harvard University Press, 2017), Moss highlights 19 decisive moments in American history when political conflict came to a head, from James Madison’s push for federal veto power over all state laws during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to the Supreme Court’s contentious 2010 decision in the Citizens United case over campaign finance limits. Using the case-study method, the book encourages readers to step into the shoes of stakeholders and grapple with the circumstances and concerns each side faced at the time.

Moss spoke with the Gazette about the book and about a new initiative to bring his case studies into dozens of high school classrooms, where they’re used as an offbeat, interactive teaching tool.

GAZETTE: How did this book come about, and what were you hoping to accomplish?

MOSS: It grew out of a course that I created for undergraduates and M.B.A. students on the history of American democracy. There were two principal goals. One was to explore the intellectual and institutional underpinnings of American democracy in a historical perspective. The other was to introduce a new way of teaching history and civics through the case method. Last year, a piece about the course appeared in the HBS Alumni Bulletin, and the author used a very clever phrase: “history in the present tense.” That sounds about right. Case-method history asks students to put themselves in the shoes of historical decision-makers and to try to wrestle with those decisions looking forward, as if the students were there at the time. And the course seemed to work. In their evaluations, students reported not only that they found the case discussions exciting, but also that they came to view American democracy in a new, more realistic, and fuller way. Many even said that they ended up feeling a stronger sense of civic engagement as a result. My hope is that the book will spark a similar sense of discovery and engagement beyond the classroom. ...




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