Donham Promotes the Case Study Teaching Method at Harvard

As dean of the Harvard Business School, Wallace B. Donham introduced the case history teaching method to improve students’ management skills and knowledge of the business world.

Summary of Event

Today, virtually all management-related textbooks for business classes include case histories. There was a time, however, when such books contained nothing but theory. Wallace B. Donham, who was appointed to the position of dean of the Harvard Business School in 1919, changed that. He introduced an innovative element to the teaching of business: the case history. In so doing, he changed the way business subjects were taught at colleges and universities and improved the quality of graduates entering the business world. Both educators and business executives owe Donham a large debt of gratitude as a result. Harvard Business School
Case study teaching method
Business education
[kw]Donham Promotes the Case Study Teaching Method at Harvard (1920’s)
[kw]Case Study Teaching Method at Harvard, Donham Promotes the (1920’s)
[kw]Teaching Method at Harvard, Donham Promotes the Case Study (1920’s)
[kw]Donham Promotes the Case Study Teaching Method at Harvard (1920’s)
Harvard Business School
Case study teaching method
Business education
[g]United States;1920’s: Donham Promotes the Case Study Teaching Method at Harvard[04890]
[c]Education;1920’s: Donham Promotes the Case Study Teaching Method at Harvard[04890]
[c]Business and labor;1920’s: Donham Promotes the Case Study Teaching Method at Harvard[04890]
Donham, Wallace B.
Gras, N. S. B.
Larson, Henrietta M.
Gay, Edwin F.

Donham began his business career as a banker. After Harvard appointed him to the position of dean of the business school in 1919, he sought to introduce a major change into the curriculum: the inclusion of actual business histories to supplement the theory on which teachers relied so heavily. He hired N. S. B. Gras, a professor at the University of Minnesota, to come to Harvard and implement a teaching, research, and writing program designed to introduce the case history method.

Gras began at once to develop the case histories Donham so ardently wanted. He enlisted the help of several associates, primarily Henrietta M. Larson, to develop cases for his courses. Gras also teamed with Edwin F. Gay, a professor at Harvard, to publish the Journal of Economic and Business History. Journal of Economic and Business History Gay edited the publication and Gras acted as the managing editor. The first issue appeared in November, 1928. The Great Depression forced the journal to cease publication in 1932; Gras and Gay had parted ways a year earlier following disagreements over editorial policies. Six years later, the school resumed publication of the journal under a new name, the Bulletin of the Business Historical Society; it was renamed the Business History Review
Business History Review (journal) in 1954. The journal kept alive Donham’s idea of the case history approach and provides evidence of the longevity of his ideas.

Donham was named dean of the Harvard Business School at a time when people were beginning to look at business as a profession. Owen D. Young, Young, Owen D. the industrialist largely responsible for the rise of the General Electric Company, discussed the new importance of business in a speech he delivered on June 4, 1927, at the dedication of the George F. Baker Foundation of the Harvard Graduate School. He noted that until then, business largely had been conducted within the community and on a small scale. Consequently, the community disciplined the individual businessperson effectively. As the 1920’s came to a close, however, business was becoming bigger, and its local flavor was fading. Many businesspeople and educators saw a need for a new approach to teaching business. Donham was one of these people.

Colleges did not place business education, especially at the graduate level, among their highest priorities in the early part of the twentieth century. For example, only two universities in the United States, Harvard and Stanford, sponsored schools that dedicated themselves entirely to graduate students of business. The Wharton School of Finance, Wharton School of Finance the first collegiate school of business established in the United States, concentrated on undergraduate training. Many businesspeople saw the lack of concentration at the graduate level as a severe deficiency in the educational system, and some business executives sought to remedy that situation. Young’s speech was part of the ceremonies celebrating the donation of a multimillion-dollar gift to business education from the noted New York banker George F. Baker. Baker, George F. Donham connected the donation with his vision of the new profession of business, which included a social consciousness with the objective of a sound evolutionary progress of civilization.

Donham believed that education at the college level is a powerful accelerator of social change. He advocated a balance between scientific and liberal arts education, if for no better reason than to advance the study of business. He believed fervently that business is the main instrument through which science brings social change.

Donham emphasized that more college graduates were finding careers in business than in any other field. He also noted that an increasing number of engineering school graduates were becoming business administrators instead of engineers. He concluded therefore that educators should concentrate on providing students with a well-rounded business curriculum. He emphasized that education should not be strictly theoretical and that training should not necessarily be restricted to colleges.

In his own experience, Donham had learned that business administration in a technical and immediate sense was often relatively weak in its overall public relations and in its handling of human problems. He determined to correct this deficiency by widening students’ overall knowledge of business theory and its practical application. Donham explained that the mission of the Harvard Business School was not so much to train specialists as it was to develop students’ capacity to examine as many of the constantly changing facts and forces surrounding administrative situations in business as they could bring effectively into their thinking. They would then use these facts imaginatively in determining current policies and action.

The method Donham favored as a way of developing students’ capacities was the case history. He suggested that case histories would illustrate how problems actually come to the attention of business managers and show the background material actually used to solve those problems. He argued that the study of case histories would develop students’ essential habits, skills, and abilities, enabling them to form judgments based on diverse factual situations.


Donham soon reported that the Harvard Business School had experienced success with the case history method. The results had been so positive, in fact, that he suggested the method be included in substantial parts of the curriculum in general education. He stressed that schools should not, however, place complete reliance on the case history method. In his view, students still needed to do a large amount of reading in theory if they were to gain the necessary background in their fields of specialization. The case history approach, however, offered a number of benefits to students in a variety of fields.

In his 1944 book Education for Responsible Living: The Opportunity for Liberal-Arts Colleges, Education for Responsible Living (Donham) Donham presented a brief history of the impact of case histories on the curriculum at Harvard. Originally, the business faculty implemented the method on an experimental basis. The professors had seen how well case histories had worked in the law school and wanted to apply the method in business education. They hoped that it would do the same thing it had in the teaching of law, stimulating both student initiative and student interest. From the onset, it accomplished these results so satisfactorily that its use spread rapidly.

The implementation process did not go smoothly, however. At first, no books of finished business case histories existed for students to purchase, so Harvard professors had to go out into the field to collect data on which to base their own case histories. This practice was fraught with problems. Donham reported that most of the graduate business professors were economists who had little experience in gathering and analyzing business data of the type needed for general case histories. For example, they often omitted essential facts of cases, leaving students with gaping holes in the data being analyzed. Students were therefore unable to arrive at decisions on general policy.

Donham and his associates worked diligently to iron out the kinks in the case history method. In so doing, they made some startling discoveries. For example, many of the generalizations they thought of as established principles did not stand the tests imposed by changing facts, and many established theories did not stand the test of practice. Out of this experience, Donham and his cohorts learned that factual situations, realistically reported, are more than a basis for improved pedagogy.

One of the school’s concerns in the early stages of the process was monetary. As the procedure for gathering data for cases became better refined, the case reporting was turned over to young graduates of the school of business who were paid entry-level salaries for their efforts. The process helped these young graduates immeasurably as a part of their education, whether they were going into business or into teaching. In addition, it sharpened the professors’ skills. As Donham explained, the data gatherers needed considerable supervision from the professors under whom they worked and for whom they were reporting cases. Everyone involved in the process realized that the quality of supervision could be improved if the professors went through the data-gathering process themselves. This, combined with consulting work performed by the professors, which gave them the opportunity to work directly with businesses, sharpened the professors’ teaching abilities.

Donham concluded that the results improved the business school’s status in everyone’s eyes. Students learned more about the realities of business principles, rather than only the perceptions. Professors became more adept at integrating practical application and theory in their presentations. Businesspeople derived benefits from hiring newly graduated students who had a broader knowledge of actual business practices.

Donham noted also that the faculty’s teaching became more realistic and satisfactory to students. Professors could imagine themselves in the surroundings of particular cases with sufficient accuracy without making actual site visits. This realistic touch spread to their teaching of cases collected by their assistants. Another virtue of the case history method was that it freed professors from the feeling that they were amateurs looking in from the outside. Their classroom experience and repeated experience of discovering that they could hold their own in business conferences at which business problems and policy were discussed confirmed this. In effect, Donham believed that the case history approach broke down the fence between theory and practice.

Donham also was careful to point out that problems remained in using the case history method. He cited the lack of cases to use as teaching materials, the costs of gathering data, heavy teaching loads, and the sense of insecurity that afflicted many teachers when, with their background as specialists, they themselves faced the necessity of formulating policy judgments on the basis of complex and shifting facts. Business administration teachers frequently commented to Donham that they were unable to establish direct contacts with business because of lack of funds or heavy teaching loads. Therefore, they found it difficult to use cases as a teaching tool. Donham encouraged these teachers to overcome the obstacles as best they could, lest they be shown up by students who knew more than they did because of the students’ familiarity with case histories. He advised the teachers that the extra work they had to put in to integrate cases into their classes would be well worth the effort.

Not everyone agreed with Donham’s assessment. Some detractors of the case study method expressed fears that it would result in uniformity. Donham argued that the exact opposite was true. He recalled that in his experience, the only two uniformities running through instruction by the case method were the greater reliance on discussion in which students took part and the fact that every discussion started, as the students knew, from some honestly reported segment of concrete reality that called for a decision or a judgment. In Donham’s mind, there were no other fixed formulas.

Donham concluded that the case system was radically different from the project method used in the extreme progressive schools and from the use of problems as isolated bits of student research. He stressed that emphasis should always be placed on systematic development of a subject. Furthermore, he noted, the choice of what was important to study was always the teacher’s to make. He also pointed out that the case method involved group work, much as true business management does. Donham thus discussed a group philosophy of work and study years before this concept became popular.

Donham conceded that the case history method might not please everyone or be useful in all situations. Its use did point out the necessity in any reorganization of general education of preventing the repetition year after year, to unreceptive students, of disassociated unused facts and inert knowledge. Instruction, he said, must tie itself into life and develop the habits and skills required to make imaginative judgments. That message had a major impact on business educators as more schools started adopting the case method.

By the end of the twentieth century, almost every business textbook published included several case histories. The case history had become a vital component of business teaching. Decades of experience showed that case problems bring reality to business subjects, improve students’ analytic abilities, and increase their learning. They also stimulate students’ interest in acquiring more knowledge about management. That was exactly the message that Donham succeeded in getting across to business teachers. During his tenure as dean of the Harvard Business School, he revolutionized the teaching of business. Harvard Business School
Case study teaching method
Business education

Further Reading

  • Bursk, Edward C., et al., eds. The World of Business. Vol. 3. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962. A compendium of essays by major contributors to business history. Includes mentions of Donham and his approach and verifies the significance of the case history method.
  • Cruickshank, Henry M., and Keith Davis. Cases in Management. 3d ed. Homewood, Ill.: Richard D. Irwin, 1962. Discusses the use of case histories in education, giving examples to acquaint teachers and readers with the approach.
  • Donham, Wallace B. Business Adrift. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1931. Discusses how business had departed from the classical operating style of the past and offers suggestions on how management styles can be improved. Many of the ideas are applicable to business today, despite the book’s age. Also lays out a method of treating complex domestic and worldwide social problems.
  • _______. Education for Responsible Living: The Opportunity for Liberal-Arts Colleges. 1944. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1969. Donham uses his experience as a businessperson and educator to offer suggestions to educators on how they can better prepare students for careers in the business world.
  • Gilbert, Horace N., and Charles I. Gragg. An Introduction to Business: A Case Book. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1933. This collection of case histories is a prime example of the contemporary impact Donham’s method had on teaching business courses. The authors acknowledge Donham’s influence in their preface.
  • Gras, N. S. B., and Henrietta M. Larson. Casebook in American Business History. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1939. This collection of case histories was among the first of such volumes to be published (the authors mistakenly claimed that it was the first). Contains forty-three cases taken from American and business history, all excellent examples of the kinds of cases touted by Donham as invaluable teaching tools.

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