Professor Witztum on teaching theory

Professor Witztum has been teaching Managerial Economics at Solvay for over 20 years. He lives in London where he also teaches at the London School of Economics, the same school where he received his PhD.

We spoke with Professor Witztum about his legendary role teaching the theory of economics for management.
Amos Witztum
Professor of Economics

What’s it like to be a student in your classroom?

If I’ve done my job right, a transformation occurs in the mind of my students. Their worldview evolves with the theoretical knowledge that they learn. They gain the ability to think critically and reason in ways that they never did before by using the fundamental principles of economic analysis to understand both management and society.

Many business schools today are focused on teaching practical skills. Why does learning theory matter?

I try to teach universal knowledge that students can use (and update) for the rest of their lives. The experience should be similar to learning a language. Coursework is not specific and can be applied to any job, in any place. Studying case studies and other more commercial subjects is specific knowledge that may only serve you for a short period of time. This is especially true in today’s world where change is occurring so rapidly.
In sum, I believe that focusing attention on existing practices is both teaching yesterday’s world and sharing information that students can often quickly acquire on the job. My goal is to provide more lasting value.

You’ve taught MBA students at Solvay for over 20 years in addition to teaching at the London School of Economics, Hebrew University, London Metropolitan University, the Sorbonne and many other top schools around the world. What distinguishes Solvay students in your view?

Outside of Solvay, too many MBA students are overly keen to either get a job or to network.
In contrast, I find that Solvay students are genuinely interested in the pursuit of knowledge. Of course, they want to apply this knowledge to their work too, but they appreciate the theoretical aspects of learning. And understanding the theory behind economics and management is a crucial part of the MBA curriculum, and one that many other schools are forgoing in favor of more commercially oriented coursework.
Solvay students have an aptitude and enthusiasm for learning that makes teaching them a pleasure.

Students have a love-hate relationship with your courses because while they learn a great deal, they find them rigorous and demanding. And your exams are legendary. What’s your approach to teaching?

It’s my job to challenge students and to push their minds to the limits. You only learn when you feel uncomfortable and disturbed. If everything is fun, you might as well be in a theme park.
And, yes, I don’t teach to the test. To score well on my exams, you need to have immersed yourself in the subject and prove that you’ve thought critically about it. This is how meaningful learning takes place.

You’re currently writing a book about economics as a social theory and have been regularly published throughout your academic life. How does your research enhance your teaching?

You can’t have good teaching that isn’t research driven. Good theories are in constant dialogue with experience and it’s imperative you not only understand the ideas promoted by a theory, but also their weaknesses and strengths. I have made it my life’s work to do just that.
Of course, this makes teaching more demanding because students must understand a theory well before they can engage with it. But the value is clear. Graduates of my class are far better able to critically assess economic data and see beyond that which people may wish them to see.

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