Reimagining the Way Economics is Taught: The Value of Engaging with other Disciplines

By Ngina Chiteji, Gallatin School, New York University

“From abroad, I often see Africa perceived merely as a place of war, disease, and hunger, a sick entity deserving pity…”

M.G. Vassanji’s And Home was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa, p. xiii


Many scholars have expressed concerns about the views of Africa that Americans hold. Some scholars worry that Americans know very little about Africa; others worry that Americans’ perceptions of Africa are inaccurate or simplistic (see Kim, Wolff, Hershey and Artime, Wa’Njogu, and Osunde and Tlou for examples). This paper argues that making the economic discipline’s curriculum more interdisciplinary would position the discipline to correct some common misconceptions about Africa, or, at the very least, to avoid contributing to misperceptions, as making economics’ curriculum more interdisciplinary would allow the discipline to call attention to societies and places that are often ignored. The ancient Swahili Coast is one such example.

Misperceptions, Education and Correcting Mistaken Views

Among the researchers who have expressed concern about American views, McCarthy argues that most Americans have little understanding of the African continent, and that they subsequently form distorted views of her people. He adds that there is a long history of mischaracterizing Africa in the United States. Among the many pieces of evidence, he presents are the writings of the 19th century US explorer and career diplomat Henry Sanford who described the continent’s peoples as not understanding the benefits of trade and commerce, which, according to McCarthy, was an implicit denigration of African people. When studying contemporary attitudes toward the continent, Hershey and Artime found perceptions of Africa that involve “negative or simplified understandings” of the continent among present-day college students (637). Kim also found mistaken views and stereotypes among students. Specifically, when conducting an in-class experiment that asked students to draw a picture of what they think of when they think of Africa, she found that fewer than 3% of students drew images that could be characterized as positive (42). Instead, suggest her findings, Americans often view Africa as either violent and conflict-ridden, or primitive. Wolff would add devoid of history and any significant achievements to the list of ways that Westerners tend to view Africa (89). These are all specific ways that Americans think about Africa.

What is the potential role for education in correcting such misperceptions? Mwalimu Julius Nyerere said the following about education: “A man learns because he wants to do something. And once he has started along this road of developing his capacity he also learns because he wants to be; to be a more conscious and understanding person….” (emphasis added; 28). President Nyerere was noting that it is human nature for man to want to enhance his understanding. Even though Nyerere was speaking about adult education, this educational philosophy can inform how we think about a college education as well.

How, then, might the economics discipline play a role in correcting misperceptions and enhancing students’ understanding? Africa has a rich history. This history is commonly addressed in courses that are specifically about Africa that are taught in history and archaeology departments. An important part of this history includes the collection of city-states that populated the eastern seaboard during premodern and early modern times. These cities engaged in long-distance trade across the ocean long before the advent of GPS or even the compass, and many were quite prosperous. This paper argues that the study of the “Swahili Coast”—as the region is called—should not be left to historians, archaeologists, and cultural anthropologists. Specifically, it argues for the value of integrating a study of the Swahili Coast into undergraduate economics courses, where classroom discussions and analysis can be enriched by drawing examples from the region, while at the same time teaching economics majors that discussions of Africa need not be relegated merely to economic development courses where African states are typically used to showcase problems that need fixing and where Africa is presented as a region to be helped—an underdeveloped space that needs Western ideas or Western money in order to improve.

The Current Structure of the Economics Curriculum

We are interested in questions of pedagogy in this essay: in questions of how Africa is depicted in economics courses. More specifically, the paper is motivated by the possibility that a different depiction might offer a chance to expand students’ understanding of Africa and their awareness that human ingenuity and innovativeness can be found everywhere (including Africa), and to maybe change perceptions of Africa that are held by US students in the process.

What can be said about how economics is currently taught? I have now taught economics courses for 20 years, in three different settings: (i) an economics department, (ii) at a School of Public Policy, and (iii) in an interdisciplinary division of a university. The standard structure of the economics curriculum in a typical American economics department has students taking two introductory courses designed to introduce them to the basic “principles” of microeconomics and the principles of macroeconomics. (In some schools, micro and macro principles are combined into one course instead of being taught separately.) Majors then take an additional microeconomics course and an additional macroeconomics course—both at the intermediary level. Here, there is a strong emphasis on teaching the theoretical and mathematical models that comprise the discipline’s wisdom about how the economy and the economic agents within it operate. After this, students proceed to take elective courses in subfields such as labor economics, money and banking, environmental economics, international economics or economic development. To engage students, economics courses often focus on using contemporary examples, as it is thought that this is the best way to find examples that young people can relate to. The subject of Africa typically only comes up when students are studying economic development problems, either in the short units about long-run growth that appear in a macroeconomics course, or in the semester-long economic development course that majors can take as an elective.

This curricular structure means that when countries of Africa are mentioned in economics courses, it typically will occur when the discipline needs an example of a less-developed or “under-developed” country. While there is no reason to question the legitimacy of using African case studies when studying development economics, featuring Africa solely in relationship to problems like poverty, poor infrastructure, low levels of human capital, famine and disease, can inadvertently give the impression that there is nothing positive to say about Africa. That Africa has no accomplishments.

How could things be different? Below I provide several examples of ways that incorporating information about the Swahili Coast could change things. In particular, we will see that it allows Africa to be discussed in contexts that don’t involve problems. This creates the prospect of offering a more balanced view of the continent, rather than giving students the sense that there is nothing to say about Africa unless you happen to be talking about poverty and affliction.


As the title intimates, a key premise of this essay is that it would be possible to take an interdisciplinary approach when teaching economic concepts. What is the working definition of interdisciplinary in this essay? This paper conceptualizes interdisciplinary work as that which seeks to “make connections across different fields of knowledge” (Henley and Cook 3). Klein writes that the term interdisciplinarity gets associated with “integrating” and “blending” and “linking”, and this is the primary way that my paper is employing the term (22). It views interdisciplinary work as work that integrates ideas or information from different disciplines—as establishing linkages between them by blending insights from them.

There actually are many different definitions of the term “interdisciplinary” in use, as many experts have noted. In a survey of the literature, Miller observes that, while there is agreement that integration is an essential element of interdisciplinary work—explaining that interdisciplinarity is almost always defined as involving “integration” of methods, concepts or tools from two or more different disciplines for some purpose—not all scholars view the term integration the same way (3). While providing a list of all the different ways the term “interdisciplinarity” gets used by scholars is outside the scope of my paper, it is perhaps worth noting that in this essay the integration of knowledge from different disciplines will sometimes be in service of the goals of one discipline. At other times, the integration of knowledge and methods from different disciplines is done to facilitate an understanding of a topic that is deeper and richer than the understanding that would be obtained by viewing the topic from the perspective of economics alone. Both endeavors are forms of interdisciplinarity discussed in Miller.

Correcting the Misperceptions Problem through Interdisciplinary Approaches to Teaching Economics—Some Specific Examples

In what follows, I provide some specific examples of how one might take an interdisciplinary approach to teaching economics. I speak mainly from reflection upon my experience teaching an interdisciplinary seminar about trade, technology and Tanzania in a division of my home university that values interdisciplinary learning. An economist by training, designing this course challenged me to step outside my discipline and to engage with historical documents such as ancient Greek texts, Muslim travel diaries, and medieval maps; archaeological artifacts such as coins, pottery sherds and wall drawings on ruins; and concepts from physics related to winds, pressure systems, and wave patterns. The section begins with a brief overview of the Swahili Coast though, for readers who are unfamiliar with the region.

The Swahili Coast—Some Background Information

“Long before Portuguese caravels rounded the Cape, the East African coast played an important part in the Indian Ocean trading complex,” marveled the historian Terry Elkiss (119). What does the term “Swahili Coast” refer to? As Lane and Breen note, the term is used in reference to the portion of the coast that extends roughly from Mogadishu, Somalia to either the Tanzania-Mozambique border, or down to Sofala in the southern region of Mozambique (19). Of course, in premodern times, the nations Somalia, Tanzania and Mozambique did not exist (at least not in their current configuration as nation-states); but the region still existed. The eastern coast of Africa was home to several boisterous market towns with vibrant communities. This coastline, the islands near its shore, along with the Comoros islands and parts of present-day Madagascar, are all considered to make up the Swahili Coast (Lane and Breen 19).

The term “Swahili Coast” is not just a geography term, however; it also invokes a sense of time. Archaeologists Wynne-Jones and LaViolette provide a useful chronology when describing what they call “Swahili civilization” in their seminal text The Swahili World. The authors note that we can think of three different periods when studying about the Swahili Coast: (a) the period from 0 to 600 CE, during which the Swahili Coast region was a series of scattered iron age settlements populated by “iron using farmers” (Wynne-Jones and LaViolette 6) with some cities along the coast serving as trade emporiums; (b) the seventh through eleventh century, during which time the coastal towns see an expansion of village life, and the emergence of economies that combine agriculture with animal husbandry, fishing and craft production, and when substantial foreign trade begins to occur, particularly with regions across the Persian Gulf; and (c) the period dating from 1000 to 1500 CE, when the now famous Swahili stone towns emerged and the region began to trade vigorously all throughout the Indian Ocean. This is a period that we might think of as the heyday of the Swahili Coast and a period during which substantial wealth was accumulated by some of the cities. This latter period comes to a close with the arrival of the Portuguese and East Africa’s eventual colonization by Europe.

Describing one Swahili Coast city, the famous premodern Muslim explorer Ibn Battuta wrote, “Kilwa is one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns of the world” (Ibn Battuta 31). Chinese historical records mention emperors who were dazzled by luxury-related items that they could obtain from the Swahili Coast, including ivory to make carriages during the Song Dynasty (960 -1279 CE), and incense as early as the Western Han dynasty of 110 -105 BCE (Zhao and Qin 432). Even the Portuguese were impressed by the region. In 1500, the explorer Pedro Cabral wrote of Kilwa: “…a beautiful country…In this land are rich merchants, and there is much gold and silver and amber and musk and pearls. Those of the land wore clothes of fine cotton and of silk and many fine things” (qtd. in Boston 11).

Wynne-Jones and LaViolette have called the Swahili Coast civilization “a rich and complex African civilization” (1). Below I make the case for why the Swahili Coast is worthy of study in economics courses and how it might be used to illustrate key principles of micro- and macroeconomics.

International Trade: One Area Where Theories Can Be Enriched Using Swahili Coast Examples

Most microeconomic textbooks introduce students to the international trade using the Englishman David Ricardo’s trade model and the associated theory of comparative advantage. This theory states that the pattern of international trade will be determined mainly by different countries’ relative advantage at producing different goods. Countries will export goods that they are particularly suited to producing (for example, when the cost of their production process is compared to the cost of production in their trade partner’s country), and that countries will import the goods that they are not very good at producing. While Ricardo used England and Portugal as his examples to illustrate the essence of comparative advantage, one could easily use the Swahili Coast to explain the principle. Historical records indicate that one of the region’s key exports was mangrove poles (Sutton 55). This wood was used to support the growth of urban areas on both sides of the Indian Ocean, as it was commonly used to build homes. Why was the Swahili Coast an exporter of mangrove poles? The answer is because it had a comparative advantage in the production of this item! Due to climate, mangrove trees grew abundantly on the Swahili Coast. This commodity therefore provides an example of the importance of comparative advantage in determining the pattern of trade (who exports what), while also illustrating how comparative advantage is often tied to factor endowments (in this case natural resource endowments), a fact pointed out by the Swedish economists Heckscher and Ohlin in the trade model that they developed years after Ricardo’s in order to improve it. Both models are commonly taught in microeconomics and international economics courses.

What can be gained from integrating a discussion of the Swahili Coast into a discussion of comparative advantage? First, it serves to remind students that economics and history are deeply connected, despite the separation of the two that came about with the emergence of departments and siloed academic disciplines in academia around the 1800s. Models taught in economics departments are often based on systems of the past but this foundation of knowledge is often unrecognized. Second, incorporating information about the Swahili Coast provides an opportunity to integrate insights from archaeology with economic concepts because it is the findings of archaeobotanicists that provides evidence about plant use in the past (Walshaw and Stoetzel 350). Bringing such insights from archaeology into the economics classroom also allows students to talk about different ways of gathering evidence, giving them a chance to reflect upon the economics disciplines’ preference for relying on statistics as evidence. Students are able to think about how artifacts can provide valuable evidence too, and to recognize that there can be contexts in which numerical data may not be available (so limiting one’s self to phenomena that can be quantified would haphazardly reduce the scope of what one could study). Third, incorporating the Swahili Coast as one’s example to illustrate the principle of comparative advantage presents an opportunity to feature Africa in an economics course in a way that isn’t focused on African failures.

The Dhow and Sailing Technology—Enriching the Study of Both International Trade and Macroeconomics

Wonders are many on earth, and the greatest of these/
Is man, who rides the ocean and takes his way/
Through the deeps, through wind-swept valleys of perilous seas/
That surge and sway.

So wrote Sophocles in Antigone (90; lines 279-282). His words capture a spirit that imbues many people, not just the ancient Greeks.

One of the most interesting aspects of Swahili Civilization is the ships that were used to move goods across the Indian Ocean as part of the process of acquiring the items that Swahili society desired. The sailing technology in use at the time was innovative in that it made use of wind patterns in order to power the ships. The Indian Ocean is characterized by monsoons, strong winds that blow in a predictable fashion during certain times of the year. From November to February the Northeast monsoon blows from the west eastward, allowing travel from ports in India or the Persian Gulf to the Swahili Coast; while from April to May the Southwestern monsoon facilitates movement in the opposite direction, away from the Swahili Coast back toward India and other places on the eastern side of the ocean. The boats that the Swahili Coast merchants who sailed the Indian Ocean used invoked the knowledge of these wind patterns. The dhow, as the famed boats were called, was made with a triangular sail, a type of sail particularly suited to harnessing monsoon winds in order to sail between the east African coast and the Asian continent. Accordingly, the dhow’s use represents an incredible example of innovative sailing technology.

Weaving in a discussion of the dhow into an economics class creates an opportunity to construct a bridge between physics, archaeology and economics. As with mangrove poles, it is archaeological evidence that helps to establish the existence of the dhow during premodern and early modern times. For example, Neville Chittick’s excavation of a site at Kilwa revealed etchings on the walls of a 14th century palace that includes an image of a dhow. Showing this archaeological finding opens up an avenue for a discussion of how it is, exactly, that Swahili Coast merchants were able to engage in trade. Discussion of the dhow lends naturally to a need to understand physics so that students can understand science of sea travel (for example, how pressure systems create wind, celestial navigation, and how to “read” waves), and the way the weather patterns that were specific to the region also created a situation in which the merchants who were traveling from the other side of the ocean ended up having to spend substantial amounts of time on the coast while they waited for the monsoon winds to change direction, which helps explain why Swahili society has a strong Muslim influence and included people with a mixture of African and Arab ancestry. Linking knowledge from the disciplines of archaeology and physics with economics helps give students a fuller understanding of international trade than they would otherwise obtain—an understanding of the topic that could not have been obtained by just studying trade using a single disciplinary lens. As one student wrote in his final paper for the course, economics can tell us what should be traded but not how trade actually happens. Merging the study of physics with the study of economics helped me to understand the “how.” A true understanding of trade is incomplete without such blending of different disciplinary insights.

Lastly, with respect to long-distance trade, the dhow and its facilitation of commerce show that human ingenuity is not confined to the west. Ancient people in present-day developing countries can provide examples of how creative humans of the past were that students can learn from today. We learn about man’s adventurous spirit from studying the Swahili Coast as we think about how brave people must have been to be willing to venture out onto the ocean. Taking an interdisciplinary approach to teaching international trade by including analysis of the Swahili Coast in class discussions therefore offers information about Africa that can provide a more balanced view of the region than what economics curricula currently present.

Having discussed the potential relevance of the dhow for a discussion of international trade, we next turn to discussion of how it might be used in a macroeconomics course. One key issue that macroeconomists are extremely interested in is technology. When economists use this term, they use it in an expansive way that captures all that is known about ways a society might produce goods and services from the different factors of production that the society has available to it, i.e., the ways it can generate goods and services to be used to meet human wants and needs. By “factors of production,” loosely speaking, economists mean four key categories of inputs that can be used to produce output: physical capital that is needed (factories and equipment used to make items, for example), labor, human capital (knowledge and skills possessed by workers), and natural resources. While the amount of each of these inputs that a society has will influence its production capacity, macroeconomists also highlight the importance of technological knowledge for determining the total volume of output that can be generated from a society’s factors of production. echnological knowledge refers to the way different factors of production are combined and is a reflection of the ingenuity of humans, as we seek to discover new ways to do things. It is sometimes described in textbooks as what society knows about how to produce things in an efficient manner: “society’s understanding of the best ways to produce goods and services” in the words of best-selling textbook author Gregory Mankiw (252). Alternatively stated, the technological knowledge or technology that a society employs as it engages in the day-to-day tasks associated with generating goods and services for its members to consume can matter just as much as how many and what inputs the society has. The dhow can be used to provide a concrete example of how technological knowledge matters for a society. Its use of a triangular sail instead of a square sail represents an innovative type of sailing technology. As historian Abdul Sherif remarked, “with the development of appropriate technology and harnessing of the wind system, they [Swahili Coast people] could venture beyond to establish links with other communities across the ocean” (17).

Exploring Adam Smith’s Arguments about the Division of Labor

A third interesting connection that can be made between the Swahili Coast and concepts taught in economics courses is a connection to the work of the eighteenth century economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith. One argument that Smith makes in The Wealth of Nations is that a nation’s level of productivity is tied to the division of labor. The more a country’s workers are able to specialize in specific tasks, the greater production is expected to be. This division of labor can unfold either by subdividing different tasks involved in the production of a single good so that different people are responsible for different tasks, as in a factory for example, or by organizing the economy’s production so that people specialize in certain occupations so that some become farmers, others toolmakers, and others craftsmen, et cetera, rather than having a single person or family unit attempt to engage in the productions of all the items a household might need (Smith 12-13; bk.1, ch.1).

In discussing the division of labor, Smith argues that it faces natural limits based on the size of the market. He then proceeds to note how access to waterways implicitly expands the scope for commercial activity: “As by means of water carriage a more extensive market is opened to every sort of industry than what land carriage alone can afford it, so it is upon the sea coast….that industry of every kind naturally begins to … improve itself” (Smith 27; bk.1, ch.3). This characterization of the way in which access to the sea can promote the division of labor and enhance national productivity is captivating. And, as seen in our earlier discussion of navigation methods, the Swahili were a maritime society. The long-distance, cross-oceanic trade that they engaged in during ancient and medieval times therefore serves as an excellent example to use to illustrate Smith’s points.

While this example does not represent a case in which students would necessarily learn more about the division of labor than they would otherwise by including a discussion of Swahili Civilization as part of the course unit, turning to the Swahili Coast for examples is still valuable due to its ability to open up a way for students to have discussions about Africa that are not focused on deprivation and blight.

Transaction Costs and Microeconomic Theory

Although not always taught or emphasized enough, it is widely known within the economics discipline that markets are not always autopoietic. Adam Smith talked about humans having an innate propensity to “truck, barter and exchange” (21; bk.1, ch.2). However, the idea that people can engage in exchange that is mutually beneficial hinges on the presence of an environment that is conducive to exchange. Exchanges that people might ordinarily desire to make could be precluded if certain barriers to trade cannot be surmounted. The existence of such potential barriers is encapsulated in the term “transaction costs.” Contemporary economist Dani Rodrik explains that transaction costs exist whenever there are frictions that prevent exchanges from taking place, such as lack of a common language or lack of a commonly-accepted medium of exchange or lack of trust between the two parties who would like to trade (13-15). For markets to come into existence, one often needs social arrangements that support them by reducing transaction costs, says Rodrik. While Rodrik’s primary interest lies in the way that government can support markets by providing a form of third party enforcement of contracts (to alleviate the trust problem), his text also mentions the possibility that the existence of a common belief system can have a similar effect (13-16). The Swahili Coast provides an intriguing example of this option and the way it facilitates trade. By the 13th century, the Islamic religion had wide influence on the eastern coast of Africa and throughout the Indian Ocean region according to scholars such as Maxon, and Horton and Middleton. The historian Norman Rothman argues that the prevalence of the Muslim religion along the coast meant that merchants could reasonably expect that Muslim rules regarding business practices would be adhered to wherever they went (80). Connecting Rothman’s argument to Rodrik’s ideas, one can conclude that the widespread reach of Islam undoubtedly made it easier to for people to negotiate transactions and thereby supported the growth of markets and trade in the region. From an economist’s standpoint, this means the Swahili Coast provides a prime example of the principle of transaction costs and the way that a common belief system (religion) can overcome them by laying a foundation for trust between market participants and reducing uncertainty about what to expect. This example shows how a discussion of religion and history can enrich discussions of a basic economic concept. In addition to Rothman’s text, my students read chapters from historians Gosch and Stearn’s book Premodern Travel in World History to learn about the Islamic caliphates of the 7th and 10th centuries. They read about how these rulers built roads in order to ensure that mail could travel to the capital, and how these roads—along with other protections put in place to help make sure people throughout the Muslim world could make their annual pilgrimages to Mecca–ended up creating travel routes that merchants could use. Clearly, the integration of information from a variety of different disciplines allows students to come away with a rich, complex, and more sophisticated understanding of transaction costs than they would obtain otherwise.

Connections to Other Concepts in Introductory Economics Courses

Yet another topic that can be addressed in economics courses by using the Swahili Coast as part of the analysis is the role of money in an economy. Findings from archaeological excavations suggest that the evolution of money and choices about the forms it took along the Swahili Coast are consistent with basic economic theory. The early Swahili used commodity money just as many societies of the past did, with items such as glass beads, shells, metal wire and sometimes cloth being used to conduct transactions. Around the 8th century, the first mint came into existence in the region and coins minted from precious metals such as copper and later silver and gold began to circulate as money after that point, although sometimes alongside the non-coin mediums of exchange (Pallaver 447). As is true even for currency today— British currency for example—Swahili Coast coins typically bore reference to a ruler somewhere on them. This would have been a sultan. Hence, coins of the Swahili Coast played the economic function that economists would expect them to perform, while also having the cultural-symbolic role that money often has in modern societies.

The above discussion of the findings of archaeologists shows that there is a place for both a discussion of the Swahili Coast and of archaeology in a money and banking course, or a unit on money in a macroeconomics course.

One last topic worth mentioning is the iron production and metalworking that occurred along the Swahili Coast. As the archaeological work of the University of Dar es Salaam’s Felix Chami and Bertram Mapunda reveals, the Swahili were actively engaged in iron-working. Most students today wouldn’t have any idea how to make iron; instead, cans and other steel products are something we take for granted today. Again, the point that can be made to students here is that ancient westerners were not the only ingenious people populating the earth centuries ago. Human ingenuity knows no bounds and no geographic boundaries. Africans were doing important and complex tasks like iron-working as far back as at least 1 AD (Chami 87). This is long before the “United States” of America even existed. American students ought to have an opportunity to learn this.

Having demonstrated that there are interesting things about the Swahili Coast that can be taught in economics courses, the next three sections connect the discussion of the value of studying the Swahili Coast and my enthusiasm for it to ideas about education from other scholars and to some wider discussions in the global intellectual community, including conversations about the benefits of interdisciplinarity in the classroom.

Scholarly Discourse on the Benefits of Interdisciplinarity

Many scholars have noted that academic disciplines have a long tradition of producing knowledge in isolation; and that US universities are configured in a way that typically has students taking courses in different departments without necessarily making connections across their courses and the academic disciplines they encounter when taking these courses. Weingart, Calhoun and Rhoten, and Doyle and Bozzone all offer such arguments. One big benefit from incorporating discussion of the Swahili Coast into an economics course is that it allows one to use history and archaeology to help students learn that economic principles of today apply in the past as well; and, in the process, they are learning something that economics students would not ordinarily learn. Specifically, students come to know that history and archaeology also provide ways of discovering information about economic activity, and that the tools of these disciplines, while often different from the empirical methodology that is emphasized in economics, also provide meaningful ways to gather empirical evidence about economic phenomenon. Additionally, the students uncover something about Africa that one would not ordinarily learn without an interdisciplinary approach because they are given an opportunity to discuss African societies in new contexts, rather than only seeing the continent featured in discussions of development problems.

Should undergraduates always be learning about the economy in isolation? Probably not. Doyle and Bozzone have noted “…the most enjoyable and reinforcing aspects of learning are seeing and experiencing the connections between different subject areas” (12). Integrating discussion of the Swahili Coast into an economics course can break the practice of transmitting knowledge to students through silos. Moreover, this interdisciplinary approach may contribute to students’ development in unexpected ways. Kidron and Kali contend that “the ability to think and integrate knowledge across disciplines and to understand the relations between fields of knowledge” is one of the most critical skills that students can cultivate in courses with an interdisciplinary emphasis (qtd. in Henley and Cook 3).

Global Understanding

As colleges prepare students to enter into a world where people of different countries are connected in unprecedented ways, being able to interact with persons from other cultures in a respectful fashion seems increasingly important. Because understanding can help foster respect, there are likely to be benefits from teaching US students about Africa’s accomplishments. It may be particularly beneficial to students who are majoring in economics, as these are individuals who are likely to find themselves in jobs that are connected to global commerce. It may also benefit non-majors simply by providing exposure to another culture in a way that isn’t “ghettoized,” if I can borrow a phrase from Hogan (189). Most US colleges and universities require students to take one or two non-western courses in order to fulfill the school’s graduation requirements, and this is an important way to give students exposure to other cultures and to enhance their understanding of the world. I would argue that students might also benefit from seeing that you don’t necessarily have to take a special course to learn about or talk about the non-west, however; conversations about Africa can be part of everyday conversations in their so-called “regular” courses too.

Traditional Critiques of Economics and How Mine is Different

I am not the first to offer a critique of the economics discipline. Many scholars, both within the discipline and outside it, have raised concerns about this field of study, particularly the profession as practiced in the United States, and particularly in terms of how it deals with questions of race. One of the biggest criticisms levied in this regard is that mainstream economics is to attached to the idea that racial discrimination cannot persist in a market context because competition should naturally eliminate it, an argument first proffered by Gary Becker in the late 1950s. As Darity et al. have argued in their critique of Becker’s perspective, the empirical record seems at odds with the Beckerian view.

My interest is clearly different from the above critiques of the economics discipline. It lies in pointing out that the discipline could give US students a better understanding of economic history and shine a spotlight on the prominent place that African cities along the Swahili Coast played in long-distance trade in premodern and early modern times in the process. Regrettably, in the United States, today’s economics majors and other students in economics courses often come away with a sense that there’s nothing before Adam Smith; and American students falsely conclude that if there is anything to be learned from ancient times, it is only going to come from Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome.


There are clearly many things that can be learned by studying the Swahili Coast. The fact that some of the issues that economics grapples with are timeless presents an opportunity to incorporate discussion of the region into economics courses and to show students that Africa has something to say about many of the issues and principles that concern economists. Making space to have conversations that stretch back in time, and conversations that reach across space or place and across disciplines by including both the empirical research and texts of many disciplines at once can go a long way toward engaging and enlightening the next generation of US students. Where can one put the likes of Sophocles in conversation with basic economic principles and the scholarship of Muslim travelers that has been unearthed by historians? Where can we use material objects or wall and cave drawings uncovered by archaeologists to enhance our understanding of money, modes of travel and trade? How often does one have the opportunity to demonstrate the value of knowing about physics and navigation methods when studying economics? Integrating discussion of the Swahili Coast into economics courses is a promising way to show students how to make connections across the wide variety of courses that they may be taking in any given semester, and it also offers a chance to tackle misperceptions and misconceptions of Africa. It therefore seems an opportune moment to re-imagine the way we teach economics in the United States and to rethink Africa’s place in the discipline.

Many Indian Ocean scholars view the ocean as a site where important exchanges have occurred. How appropriate, then, to use the Swahili Coast, which is situated on that ocean, as inspiration for traveling across disciplines in order to gain greater understanding. After all, the true value of a liberal arts education lies not just in being exposed to different academic disciplines, but also in figuring out how to put them together—to understand that the blending of knowledge from different disciplines is what truly makes one erudite.

Works Cited

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Calhoun, Craig, and Diana Rhoten. “Integrating the Social Sciences: Theoretical Knowledge, Methodological Tools, and Practical Applications.” Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity, edited by Robert Frodeman et al., 1st ed., Oxford UP, 2010, pp.103-18.

Chami, Felix. “Early Ironworking Communities on the East African Coast.” East African Archaeology: Foragers, Potters, Smiths and Traders, edited by Chapurukha Kusimba and Sibel Kusimba, U of Pennsylvania P, 2003, pp. 87-97.

Chittick, Neville. Kilwa: An Islamic Trading City on the East African Coast. British Institute of East Africa, 1974. 2 vols.

Darity, William, et al. “A Tour de Force in Understanding Intergroup Inequality: An Introduction to Stratification Economics.” Review of Black Political Economy, vol. 42, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1-6.

Doyle, Mary Beth, and Donna Bozzone. “Multidisciplinary Teaching: Providing Undergraduates with the Skills to Integrate Knowledge and Tackle ‘Big Questions.’” IMPACT, vol. 7, no. 1, Winter 2018, pp. 12-7, Accessed 15 January 2022.

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