Grateful to Have Had John Steinbruner as a Mentor

John Steinbruner invited me to meet with him at his house a couple of weeks ago. After a short chat, I left with a pretty clear sense he was nearing his end. And yet his mind was as sharp as always, even if his speech couldn’t keep up.

John was the kind of scholar who had such intellectual clarity that he could articulate your arguments better than you could. And if he disagreed with you, he could improve your argument for you, show you where the flaws are, and leave you grateful for the correction. He was the kind of adviser who would give you enough rope to hang yourself with (let you pursue your hypotheses and data down some crazy intellectual paths) but step in just in time so the hanging never happened (help you articulate the crazy in a way that was far more interesting than you yourself had realized).

He was the kind of professor who would teach you, 12 years ago, that in the future an important strategic concern will be the widespread availability of [insert the technical term for “tiny flying robot assassin swarms”] and you’d dismiss that idea as a crazy faraway fantasy – only to realize within a decade that, not only is the United States already killing hundreds of people with flying robot assassins (“drones”) in foreign wars, but that drones in general are getting smaller and cheaper and increasingly accessible. He was right—a phrase I’ve heard myself utter more than once in the past decade.

The main questions that have motivated my postdoctoral career emerged in my mind during David Crocker’s democracy and democratization class. But the main hypotheses I’ve pursued as potential answers to those questions have been inspired pretty directly from John’s teaching on the sources of civil violence and his emphasis on local and emergent dynamics. His own dissertation, The Cybernetic Theory of Decision, anticipated by decades the direction that research in political science and economics would one day take, and the mainstream of those fields are only now beginning to catch up to the ideas and policies implied in the work a twenty-something John Steinbruner did before I was even able to read.

He was also, it should be noted, an exceedingly kind man, who will be remembered fondly by many colleagues and several generations of students, including me. I don’t think I ever thanked him directly. But he wasn’t the kind of person who needed to hear it. He knew.