needed: the case method for civics

David Garvin has written, “All professional schools face the same difficult challenge: how to prepare students for the world of practice. Time in the classroom must somehow translate directly into real-world activity: how to diagnose, decide, and act. A surprisingly wide range of professional schools … have concluded that the best way to teach these skills is by the case method.”

I propose that we need cases for citizens. Of course, there are many case studies available. Participedia provides hundreds of examples of citizens’ engagement with government. Many books (including my own) tell stories of successful or failed civic efforts.

But the case method is a little different. A “case” in this context means a deliberately incomplete story. It ends at a point of decision for a character or small group. The decision is contrived or chosen to be difficult in the specific sense that it is unresolvable by any formula or algorithm. Such difficulty may arise because the situation involves conflicting and incommensurable values or because the facts and likely outcomes are uncertain–or both. These two sources of indeterminacy are extremely common. Yet we must act. Garvin writes:

“The case system, ” business school alumnus Powell Niland, now of Washington University, has observed, “puts the student in the habit of making decisions.” Day after day, classes revolve around protagonists who face critical choices. Delay is seldom an option. Both faculty and students cite the “bias for action” that results—what Fouraker professor of business administration Thomas Piper calls “courage to act under uncertainty.”

In the Summer Institute of Civic Studies last week, we discussed a case study from Harvard’s Pluralism Project. It involves an adult leader (who, coincidentally, I happen to know) who helped youth organize an interfaith event in a synagogue and who must decide, at very short notice, what to do about a sign that says, “We support Israel.” This is a case about religious pluralism, but we could also consider it a case of civic action. We need more cases like it.

By the way, if you follow the argument of Bent Flyvberg (whom we also read in the Institute), then you will conclude that all knowledge of the social world is particularistic and case-specific. The only valid knowledge comes from cases. I think that is too strong. General knowledge is also helpful. If there are no laws or algorithms that tell us what we should do, there are at least useful rules-of-thumb and principles, both explanatory and normative. Yet cases play an essential role, especially if the purpose is to educate citizens to act.