The Case Method at the Harvard Business School: Papers by Present and Past Members of the Faculty and Staff

By Malcolm P. McNair | Go to book overview

It would be a mistake to assume that the case method of teaching sprang full-panoplied from the brow of any single educator. Rather it was a product of many minds. One figure, however, was in the center of the various developments out of which grew the case method of business teaching. Melvin T. Copeland, ProtéGé of Dean Gay, close friend of A. W. Shaw, director of the Harvard Bureau of Business Research when the organized collection of cases was first begun, and active collaborator with Dean Donham in the crusade to put the Harvard Business School on a case basis, is obviously the individual best qualified to narrate the story of the case method in its early beginnings. "Doc" Copeland has told this story specifically for this volume.


The Genesis of the Case Method in Business Instruction

MELVIN T. COPELAND

In the first catalogue of the Harvard Business School, issued in the spring of 1908 preparatory to the opening of the new School in September of that year, the following statement was published:

In the courses on Commercial Law, the case-system will be used. In the other courses an analogous method, emphasizing class-room discussion in connection with lectures and frequent reports on assigned topics,--what may be called the "problem method,"--will be introduced as far as practicable.

Edwin F. Gay, the first Dean of the School, was responsible for that decision. Since at that time I was assistant to Dean Gay in his course in Economic History in Harvard College, I had frequent contacts with him, and he often told me of some of his plans for the new School. The decision to have instruction "as far as practicable" take the form of classroom discussion of specific problems was prompted by the example of the Harvard Law School. The Law School, in fact, was by far the most serious competitor which the new Business School had to face. For some years numerous college graduates had been attending the Law School to prepare for business careers. The Law School training was highly esteemed in influential business circles, and that training was effectuated by the use of the case method of instruction. Hence, Dean Gay decided that instruction in the Business School should be patterned on the method used with such conspicuous success in the Law School.

The statement that instruction was to be by classroom discussion of problems was qualified by the phrase "as far as practicable" since there was uncertainty as to whether or not "problem" teaching mate-

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