Steven Weber Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
|Photo by Jane Scherr|
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Steve, welcome to our program.
Thank you, Harry.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in the discreet bedroom community of Baldwin, Long Island, which is about fifteen miles to the east of New York City -- a place where people who used to live in Brooklyn escaped to.
Looking back, how do you think your parents influenced your thinking about the world?
Well, they would claim that they determined it in every fashion. But in fact ...
What was the truth?
The truth is that we were always part of a community that was politically aware, in part because it was largely made up of next-generation immigrants who had left the Soviet Union, or Ukraine, or places like that, in part because of the Holocaust. So there was an inbred political awareness that there was a world out there that actually did matter. Even though we were playing Little League like everybody else we usually came home and found out something about what was going on in the world. So that was the case.
I grew up in a generation that was just old enough to get a sense that there was something going on called the Vietnam War, and that my older sister was participating in protests, and that she was doing that for a reason. I remember my parents going down to Washington in 1968 for the protest. So we were aware that there was a world out there. That awareness as a kid generates interest that does not go away as long as you live.
Where were you educated?
I went to Baldwin High School, and then I went to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where I thought I was going to be a math major. But one of the classes you had to take to be math major, I remember very distinctly, was at 8 o'clock in the morning. And I tried. I did my best, but I couldn't make it. So I thought, "What are my options?" Washington, at the time, had a very interesting History Department, so I gravitated toward the History Department.
They also had a very interesting Political Science Department in a peculiar way, in a way I didn't understand at the time. Wash U, at that time, was the hotbed of public choice and rational choice in political science. So people like Jim Alt, Ken Shepsle, Barry Weingast, who later went off to Harvard and Stanford to create this new sub-specialty of political science, were teaching there at the time. I went into a political science class, Barry Weingast's class, actually, thinking, "Oh, this ought to be about political science." I saw him writing some equations up on the board and I thought, "I'm going back to the History Department."
I see. You had already decided about math, right?
Yeah, I'd already decided about math, and I didn't quite understand what that was, and how that related to the intellectual trajectory that, remarkably, in a peculiar way, I would later find myself back in the middle of.
Once you graduated, had you decided that you wanted to do political science?
I had actually no idea what I wanted to do, like most twenty-year-olds. I was, unfortunately, a little too nervous and insecure about my future to accept the fact that I didn't know what I wanted to do, and just go and take a little time off and think about that. Instead, I raced off to do something, and the thing that seemed doable at that time was medical school. I applied to medical schools and went to Stanford, and spent the first couple of years in medical school there, absolutely loving it. It was really great -- very research-oriented, very knowledge-oriented. There was this sense that you were on the cutting edge of a set of clinical and scientific discoveries -- a very exciting place to be. And then it changed. Once you move into your third year of medical school and you're in the clinics taking care of patients, it becomes a very, very different sort of profession, much more practice-oriented, much less scientific, much less research-oriented. And it didn't work for me. I could manage it, but I never really was in love with it. So I decided to take a year off and try something else.
I called the History Department at Stanford and said, "Would you be willing to take a graduate student from another school in one of your graduate courses?" They said, "No, we don't accept students from other departments in our graduate courses, but call Political Science, they'll take anyone" -- which isn't true. I called Political Science, not knowing what it was about at the time, and pretty soon I found a couple of people and a couple of faculty, and I got the sense that this was something I wanted to do. So I took a year off. I got a Master's in Political Science. I went back to medical school, did another year of clinical internships, and then realized what I really wanted to do was academic political science. I was lucky enough at that time to meet an extraordinary man, Alex George, whom you know, who helped me think about what it was that attracted me to this field, and what were the core set of problems that I was interested in working on. One thing leads to another, and before you know it you're in a Ph.D. program and then you're out.
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