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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Historian Questioning Why So Many of Us Take Our Local World as the Default

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

Timothy Nunan grew up in Palos Verdes, an ocean-side suburb of Los Angeles. Most who graduate from the private high school he went to, Chadwick, stay in or near California for college. His decision to cross the country to go to Princeton University turned out to be pivotal.

“When I went to the East Coast,” Nunan says, “nomadism became the standard for me. I was often perplexed by students who had never been further west than Pennsylvania and viewed California as a foreign country. I had already traveled a long way and yet could feel at home in New Jersey. Over the long run, perhaps, that’s given me a sense that ‘home’ can be anywhere—that taking your local world as the default one should be questioned.”

At the moment, he’s in Berlin, putting the final touches on a book about how humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan have left that country worse off.

A former Fulbright and Rhodes Scholar, he’s now an Academy Scholar at Harvard’s Academy for International and Area Studies. He got his history Ph.D. at Oxford, during which time he traveled throughout Eurasia—including Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan—to conduct research and interview locals.

"Afghanistan is a mess today, because of the ways in which Western and Soviet developmental and humanitarian projects interacted during the Cold War. Understanding how and why offers a lens into the history of how and why groups ‘do’ aid in crisis zones today."

Nunan, whose Princeton degree is in German, is constantly working to master languages. He also speaks Russian, Persian, and Spanish, thanks to his strong conviction that learning a region’s history as told by its native languages is the best way to go about his work. “In spite of the global dominance of English,” he says, “much sophisticated scholarship is published in languages besides it. The material for learning Persian history through Russian, for example, is, in my opinion, better than the Anglophone material.”

His multilingualism comes in handy for his book projects. The one he’s wrapping up is tentatively titled Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan and will be published by Cambridge University Press within the next year.

Using interviews and archival documents, Nunan delves into what the embattled nation went through from the 1950s to the 1990s, especially at the hands of do-gooder groups like USAID and Doctors Without Borders.

“Afghanistan is a mess today,” he says, “because of the ways in which Western and Soviet developmental and humanitarian projects interacted during the Cold War. Understanding how and why offers a lens into the history of how and why groups ‘do’ aid in crisis zones today.”

Nunan has already started writing a second book, which he’s thinking of calling Eurasian Crossings, “an interregional history,” he explains, “of Soviet Central Asia, Iran, and Afghanistan from the early 1940s to the 1990s—in some sense, a prequel to Humanitarian Invasion. As a historian, this is the great untold story of the interwar period.”

Nunan credits Michael Gordin, a science historian at Princeton, with helping him decide on history. “When I was just a sophomore,” Nunan says, “he took time out of his schedule while still untenured to look over drafts of essays that I was writing for an introductory history of science class. It’s only with some retrospect that I realize how extraordinary a pedagogical gesture that was.”

Though Nunan didn’t end up specializing in the history of science, he says, “it was through Gordin’s collegiality—to 20-year-olds, no less—that I came to think that I could have something to offer in high-level discussions about history.”

After a summer of learning German—or, as Nunan puts it, “getting yelled at by superiors at a radio station in Stuttgart”—he returned to Princeton knowing he wanted to study modern German and Russian history.

Not long after that, a seminar he took about 20th-century intellectuals featured Adam Michnik, a Polish thinker who, Nunan says, “brought the authors we read, like Hannah Arendt or Aleksandr Wat, to life. It constituted a reminder that these weren’t just books by dead white men, but that there was always an inherent lived texture to history. Thanks to an outlook like this, it was possible for me to consider doing my own modest editorial and translation work on someone like Carl Schmitt, a controversial German intellectual.”

Another individual who shaped Nunan’s path was the Princeton professor Stephen Kotkin. “More than providing just a strong foundation in Soviet history,” Nunan says, “Kotkin’s courses provided a panorama onto this Eurasian world that I only had a vague inkling of. There was a sense of a voyage of discovery that one could make. In a sense, the two major projects I’ve done since Princeton—the Carl Schmitt book and my forthcoming book on Afghanistan—constitute outgrowths of my engagement with both of these scholars.”

Despite his heavyweight academic feats, when asked which accomplishment he’s proudest of, Nunan says that it’s having developed patience and humanity. He attributes those qualities of his to his parents’ example in fostering a loving environment for his brother, who is autistic.

“Moving through high-powered institutions like Princeton, Oxford, and Harvard,” Nunan says, “it’s all too easy to absorb a calculating attitude. Growing up with an autistic sibling, however, and knowing that there are responsibilities to come in terms of guaranteeing his security and dignity, forms a constant reminder of how contingent your own professional achievements are on the caprice of illness or fortune.”

Via conversations with his parents, he says, “I think I’ve been able to move on from a sense of guilt that can be common among people with autistic siblings. But I have to remain mindful of deep familial responsibilities that may be more demanding than conjugating a Russian verb.”

So, where next for Nunan? “Working for a year or two in government could be very illuminating,” he says. Or, he ponders, he could head to a thought center like Bishkek, Kiev, or Vilnius to continue his line of study.

“The fact that we’re often born within national contexts shouldn’t blind us to the profound interdependence that shapes our world,” he says. “Claims of American exceptionalism notwithstanding, nations are embedded in one another’s histories. Any understanding of national history that aims at cutting out discussions of interaction and enmeshedness misses the real story. I hope to play a role in institutionalizing this kind of history writing.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).