• Academics
U.S. History Course Brings the Past to Life through Harvard’s Case Method

Students travel from 1787 to 2010, examining cases that influenced the trajectory of the United States, in Clare Grieve’s “A History of American Democracy.” Grieve employs the case method, which was pioneered by Harvard Business School faculty and today has broad application in higher education.

The case method encourages students to become active participants in examining issues, considering potential ramifications of a particular decision, and questioning associated policy details -- all through the eyes of a stakeholder in that moment of history. Students review roughly 20 cases during the 10-week course, including James Madison's efforts to prevent states from superseding federal authority, and how to address the mounting public debt of the 1840s.

In one case, students examine free common school education, established in the mid-1800s through an open-ended tax. “Most students enter the case with a firm belief that they would have voted for free education,” said Grieve. “As the case unfolds, they learn about the nativist, anti-immigrant sentiments that drove the proposal, and they begin to understand that there are complicated motivations for many decision points throughout history.”

Grieve explores the concept of constructive versus destruction tension throughout history, emphasizing that productive conflict is necessary for progress. How do you reflect the will and desires of the majority while representing and protecting the rights of the minority, and how does this constructive tension manifest in each case? “Students challenge their assumptions and learn that there is no right or wrong answer, no good or bad decisions,” said Grieve. “They must consider and debate the nuances of the cases and determine what course of action they would take in a particular moment in time.”

Once the debate has concluded, Grieve reveals the decision to the class. “The decision itself is only part of the story -- we discuss how the selected solutions create ripple effects throughout history, some intended and some not.” The discussion-based class encourages students to challenge each other’s assumptions about democratic values and practices, and draw their own conclusions about what democracy means in America.

History of American Democracy Class

Grieve was first made aware of the case method by a family friend who had taken a course at Harvard with historian David Moss, the Paul Whiton Cherington Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. In a February 2017 Harvard Gazette piece by staff writer Christina Pazzanese, Moss shared: “I think political conflict — even intense political conflict — is absolutely essential in a democracy. Conflict is what generates and surfaces good ideas. There’s a competition in the marketplace of ideas just like in the economic marketplace. Competition in the business world is immensely productive because it plays a vital role in generating innovation, new ideas, and new products. The same is true in the policy sphere. Policymakers need to identify problems, and some people are better at doing this than others. Then there’s the need to diagnose the problems and come up with solutions, and of course implement those solutions effectively. All of these things require ideas and creativity. Conflict within the context of political competition is important for this, and conflict is also essential to help keep at bay some fundamental threats to the democracy, from undue special-interest influence to tyranny of the majority.”

Grieve invited Moss to conduct a workshop with Lawrenceville’s history department in 2017, and began incorporating cases into existing courses. Grieve soon realized that to fully realize the arc of learning, she would need to develop a dedicated class. “A History of American Democracy” premiered in fall 2021 as a 500-level core class.

“Using the case method definitely taught me a lot about taking anecdotal accounts of history and digging deeper into American politics. Having the actual stories, [with details] that are normally glossed over, of what occurred in different issues adds complexity and nuance. I believe that the case model provides a more personal and specific breakdown of our history,” said Harry Lynch ’23. “As far as creating conclusions go, the case model forces students to deviate from standard forms of thinking and really places you in the shoes of American politicians in the midst of the event we were studying. By not explicitly disclosing the conclusions to the events in history within the case itself, it fostered different schools of thought around the Harkness table and laid the groundwork for rich debate.”

Lynch looks forward to using the case method to guide his learning in other courses, stating, “I certainly think the critical thinking involved with interpreting political action will serve me well in interpreting more complex scenarios in my other classes. In addition, the resulting nuance in Harkness discussion taught me how to navigate conversations consisting of very polarized and intense points of view.”

The Harvard Business School’s Review profiled Grieve and her success in implementing the case method of teaching at Lawrenceville, after she was able to demonstrate its effectiveness in increasing classroom engagement. Students' final exam focused on retention and critical thinking, requiring students to present an evidence-based argument in response to a broad thematic question. Students who had been exposed to the case method performed strongest on the exam, further indicating its role in developing skills vital for academic and professional success.

“The course offers a deep dive into episodes of American history that illustrate the democratic republican decision making process, which is vital to preserving informed debate and checks and balances in our society today,” said Grieve. “History doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. We often oversimplify pivotal points in American history, when in reality there are untold nuances that shape how that decision impacts people’s lives in the short- and long-term, and how we conduct ourselves as a society.”

For additional information, please contact Lisa M. Gillard Hanson, director of Public Relations, at lgillard@lawrenceville.org.