Sunday, April 11, 2004

Couplets, Dogmas, and Case Studies.

Hoshwalon ko khabar kya, Bekhudi kya cheez hai
Ishq kijiye phir samajhiye, Zindagi kya cheez hai


These were the lyrics of the opening song at a concert by Jagjit Singh, a popular Indian ghazal (Webster's - a kind of oriental lyric, and usually erotic, poetry, written in recurring themes) singer that I attended friday night. Pardon my spotty knowledge of Urdu, but the lyrics translate loosely to:

What do conscious people know, what being enraptured feels like
Fall in love, and you'll understand, what Life feels like.


It was an awesome concert, in two parts - the artiste sang his choices in the first half, and took requests in the second half. He also had the crowd sing along to some popular tunes. Walking out, I couldn't help compare the experience to another a few years ago. There is a dance school outside the Indian city of Bangalore that has an annual all-night cultural experience called Vasanta Habba, literally Spring Festival. It's the highlight of the cultural scene and attracts the creme-de-la-absolute-cream of the Indian cultural establishment who perform there. I was at one of these listening to a flute maestro give a flawless performance. At the end of one of his pieces, the crowd went wild and there was a standing ovation and cheers and whistles. But then, the performer stopped performing. He chided the crowd for cheering, and said that his art was a devotion to god and not meant to be cheered but enjoyed as a spiritual experience. He refused to perform if the audience didn't sit quietly ! It was a first for me. I can understand the principles by which he lives, devoted to an art form and its rules that are as old as Indian culture itself. But, I couldn't help feel an arrogance there, a refusal to move away from dogmatic observations and adapt to the changing times. It's no wonder classical Indian music has nowhere the kind of following it used to.

What does this have to do with this blog ? Thinking about this also brought a conversation I had last week at Wharton to mind. One of the questions I have seen asked at every B-school I have visited is the case-study-of-HBS vs. what-do-you-guys-use. I got the most interesting explanation at Wharton. W is unlike other B-schools and is actually run like a start-up and professors have the complete freedom to choose how they want to teach. This results in constant innovation, often based on student feedback, ultimately resulting in optimal teaching methods. This was compared to an environment like HBS', where pretty much the only method of teaching is case-based. I will not argue about the merits of the case study method itself, but the point is every professor is pretty much required to adapt his or her teaching style to this form. Even if someone feels like there is a better way to teach, or students to learn, there are rules applied by the school that limit this exploration. Of course, it is Harvard's belief that the case method is the best way to learn and they impose this thinking on their students, but a dismissal of other approaches is a serious flaw, in my humble opinion.

What made this observation even more pertinent was a class I attended at Wharton by Jeremy Siegel. This was the most interesting class experience I've ever had. I walked into class and found an empty chair along the back wall and settled in. Soon, the class was overflowing with students standing along the walls and sitting in the aisles. I almost felt guilty for taking a seat. He started his class and the first half-hour was spent on his 'market commentary' which I learned later he does every class ! After half-hour the class emptied out. The people who left were students who weren't in the class but come to class anways to hear the Professor's views on the economy, stock market and the events of the day affecting those. His class is the only core course that students need to bid for, but it was amazing that even if you don't get to take the class, his views and thoughts are available for everyone to observe and learn from, in a format he has devised to achieve that very goal. Way cool.
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