My policy of reading books my friends write means that every few years I read a book about education policy by my high school buddy, Mitchell Stevens,who is now a professor at Stanford University. I read and learn about subjects I never thought about before. His book about college admissions was fascinating. And his first book, one about homeschooling, was also really interesting.
Mitchell’s latest book, Seeing the World: How US Universities Make Knowledge in a Global Era, looks at how US universities face the need for a global perspective in the study of economics, political science, and sociology.
Mitchell recently talked with Rose City Reader about his new book and the whole idea of "area studies" for those of us unfamiliar with the term.
Can you explain, for non-academics, what your book Seeing the World is about?
It’s an investigation of how universities organize research and teaching about the world beyond US borders. Universities have a big management problem: their ambition is to shepherd the “universe” of knowledge but of course there is no one or best way to do that. So they are constantly tinkering with how to carve up the world into chunks of curriculum and scholarship. What do you do with Africa? Do have a department of Africa? A program on African studies? Do you carve up the study of Africa by topic (history, economics)? Or region? Pre-colonial and postcolonial? Again, there’s no right way to do this, but intellectual styles, priorities and politics change over time. So too do the patrons of universities. Patrons are a big, influential deal.
What does “area studies” mean?
Speaking of patronage, area studies are a product of the Cold War, when many agencies of the US federal government as well as major philanthropies were eager to develop what the government called “strategically useful” knowledge about regions of the world that were especially important for US geopolitical interest: the USSR and Eastern Europe; China; Latin America; Africa. With this financial support universities created programs in “area” studies, each focused on a different region of the world. Many of these programs are still funded through Title VI of the Higher Education Act – the omnibus funding legislation of the US Congress.
Who is the audience for your book? Who do you hope will read it?
Our first intended readers are academics who do area studies and the academic administrators who manage these programs. Virtually every university of ambition is trying to be “global” – but how to do that? And how is it to be done in light of this Cold War legacy that carved the world up geographically? Do those regions still make intellectual sense? If not, what should replace them?
But we also wrote the book to be accessible to anyone interested in higher education. The people we spoke with – 73 seasoned academics – are very articulate and candid. We quote them at length throughout the book’s modest length.
What will readers learn from your book?
They will learn about just how competitive and status-conscious the US academic world is. And how deeply invested academics are in their own scholarship and prestige. And how articulate and often funny academics can be. And how different social scientists (economics, political science, sociology) are from humanists like historians and literary scholars.
What is your professional background? How did it lead to writing a book on global perspectives in university education?
I’m a sociologist. I study the organization of universities and how their leaders get what they need – money, authority – from governments and how they compete with one another for students, faculty, and prestige. It began with my prior book, Creating a Class (Harvard, 2007), which is about selective admissions. Universities are absolutely fascinating to me. They reward and exhaust whatever critical attention you give them.
Please tell us a little about your co-authors. How did the three of you come to collaborate on this project?
One of those great serendipities. Cynthia Miller-Idriss studies German nationalism; we had offices next door to each other when we were both at New York University. She got tapped by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) to develop this project with Seteney Shami, who is an anthropologist of the Caucasus and overseas the Asia portfolio for SSRC. That organization was instrumental in inventing area studies in the 1960s. Cynthia and Seteney were kind enough to let me join the project in light of my knowledge of US higher education. And here we are.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
I learned that how academics carve up problems really, really matters for the kind of knowledge you get. For example, if you put all of the people who study China via Mandarin language and culture in a different academic unit from the people who study China via statistics, you’re going to get very segregated knowledge and risk reciprocal incomprehension among the different kinds of experts. Unfortunate and inefficient, but universities do it all the time.
What do you like to read? What books are on your nightstand right now?
I’m reading Anthony Jack’s ethnography of low-income kids at elite schools, The Privileged Poor (Harvard, 2019). Also Buying Gay (Columbia, 2019), a fascinating social history of the physique mail-order industry in the 1950s and 60s and its remarkably germinal place in the history of lesbian/gay rights, by my friend David Johnson. Also Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia by Christina Thompson (Harper/Collins 2019)
What’s next? What are you working on now?
I’m trying to figure out how and why the US federal and state governments built the largest and arguably most productive higher education system the world has ever seen in the brief period between 1945 and 1980. It’s a much harder puzzle to work out than I had imagined – Seeing the World got it started.
SEEING THE WORLD IS AVAILABLE ONLINE, OR ASK YOUR LOCAL BOOKSELLER TO ORDER IT.