The Pomegranate Quiz (a sort of a teaching philosophy)

pomegranate If I let myself get truly creative (and admittedly, a little peculiar) about what to cover in the business curriculum of an American university, I would definitely include a lesson on Exotic Fruit. No one should become a manager without pondering the lessons such a class might offer.

Unlike the” basic” fruit categories many Americans restrict themselves to (apples – oranges – bananas –grapes – repeat), many exotic fruits require patience and an open mind. Not that there aren’t modern shortcuts – I love my pineapple corer/slicer – but it is important to understand that not every  fruit – and not every customer account, or investment analysis,  or feasibility study –  can be reduced to a formula and expected to yield its treasures straight away.

Our entire education system conditions students to learn a tool and then apply it to repetitive problems without a diagnostic process, and in my analytical classes students particularly dislike “word problems” that do not specifically name the tool they are expected to use. A nice fruit basket, and maybe some time trying to get into a coconut with a pineapple corer, might help drive the lesson home that when given a problem, their first objective should be to study its unique qualities, and then, contingent on their best perception, research, and critical thinking, select a tool from as wide an arsenal as possible. And to cover the basics of how to research for, or design, tools for addressing a problem they have no prior experience with.

I particularly like the lessons on patience and adaptability. A lifetime ago, babysitting an American child in Turkey, I learned that my charge loved apricots and made it a point to buy a rosy-cheeked, fragrant pound of the best apricots to be had at the farmer’s market for our next visit together. Imagine my chagrin when the boy took one look at my offering and flatly declined to even taste them. “Those are not apricots!” he told me with the superior sneer I have also seen employed by managers when they visit what they think of as developing countries, or modest ventures, or small towns. According to them, everyone knows that apricots come pre-sliced, in a can with heavy syrup, and trade regulations or stock markets or performance reviews should run in a certain way. Well, my friends, here in the real world, we’ve got different apricots and a variety of rules.

In international entrepreneurship classes, we tell our students that Chinese administrators may put bureaucratic difficulties in their way, or seem to deliberate and waffle for lengthy periods, because they are looking for American businessmen who have progressed past the instant culture, who are able to persevere and remain courteous. Having our students regurgitate this fact back to us in a test is of dubious value. I would much rather give them a Pomegranate Quiz.

Of all the fruits I grew up with, I love pomegranates best, and I am grateful that they can now be found at my local Wal-Mart. I love the rich color and the tangy taste and the antioxidants. I find great joy at the sight of the plants with the delicate flowers, and am grateful to my husband who is trying to coax a couple of baby pomegranate trees through a Midwestern winter in our spare bedroom. But most of all, I appreciate the fact that you cannot eat a pomegranate standing up in front of the refrigerator or typing with one hand, which is how I get the deplorable majority  of my nutrition. You have to respect a pomegranate, to approach it with humility, with nimble, gentle fingers and a willingness to explore the topology of each individual fruit to discover the hidden arils. If the students got into the spirit of the experiment, we could discuss contingency theories and time management for projects that cannot be crashed, all while we prepared the pomegranates, and then end the class with a wonderful snack!

Wouldn’t it be brilliant if I could be up lecturing during part of the preparation and get treated to some labor-free pomegranate? An apple on Teachers’ Day would be fine if I was lecturing straight out of textbooks, but since I put together my classes with all the intricate work it takes to prepare a pomegranate,  this really would be the way that appreciation is shown if any is felt!

I am only half kidding. As my arthritic paws crush the fruit and spray my blouse with that distinctive purple juice,  I always hearken back to the memory of my best friend, back when we were twelve, preparing bowls of pomegranate arils for her father, and find yet another regret in my childless state. Sadly I never served my own father thus, and wouldn’t really expect any half-American offspring to do it for me; but there is another lesson here I would love to share with my students. If I could distill that image of a twelve-year-old girl gracefully preparing that bowl, and have my students truly see it, it would deepen our discussions about diversity.

That entire theory of nations  fed on potatoes being more warlike than those with diets of rice aside,  food is a definite artifact of culture, and our single-serving pouches of processed food  should be inspected next to, say, a papaya, which is so obviously meant to be shared by a family. We could then discuss the dimensions of diversity, and how, instead of insisting all their employees be apricot cans, they can create company cultures that will let each participant contribute what is authentically their best effort, to arrive at the sort of healthy, multilayered fruit salad that will remain a competitive advantage for decades! pomegranate-bowl


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