The Mead list of the top ten things to do to get smart hasn’t changed since 2011, but it deserves reposting nonetheless.
Here it is: enjoy — and let one of your New Year’s resolutions be to get smart in 2012.
To those of you out there nursing your hangovers, Merry Christmas! While most of American society considers today to be the last full day of the holiday season, the traditional Christmas won’t end until January 6.
For some people Christmas hasn’t even started yet. In some of the Eastern Orthodox churches, the twelve days of Christmas don’t actually start until January 7; these churches still use the old Julian calendar, adopted in 45 BC by Julius Caesar. Since the earth revolves around the sun in roughly 365.25 days, ensuring that the dates on the calendar correspond with the actual seasons is tricky. The Julian calendar introduced the concept of leap years, adding an extra day to one out of every four years; this helped, but wasn’t exact. Over the centuries the seasons and the calendar began to slip out of alignment once again; in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced what has since become the common civil calendar used in much of the world. The Gregorian calendar, which drops leap years in years divisible by 100 (1700, 1800, 1900) unless they are divisible by 400 (1600, 2000) was enough of a tweak to keep the calendar mostly in balance and over time it has won acceptance pretty much everywhere although, the Wall Street Journal notes, problems remain.
Neither Protestants nor the Orthodox liked it in the beginning; proposed by the Council of Trent and proclaimed by the Bishop of Rome, the new calendar was obviously some kind of papal plot. The British resisted it until 1752; Wednesday, September 2 of that year was followed by Thursday, September 14. When I was a kid they taught us in school that protesters rioted against the reform under the slogan “Give us back our eleven days!” This, they now tell us, was a myth: one of those stories that elites tell themselves to underline how stupid are the great unwashed, and how much they need the wisdom and leadership of their natural superiors.
Russia only changed over after the Bolshevik Revolution; Greece held out until 1923 when it came to the civil calendar for government offices and business. The church calendar in many Eastern Orthodox countries still sticks to the old system. All this causes endless frustration and confusion for historians, who need to know when each country adopted the new calendar before they can figure out when anything happened. The Soviet Union managed to take the confusion to a higher level still, celebrating the Great October Revolution every November, as the Bolshevik Revolution began on October 25, 1917 on the ‘old style’ or Julian Calendar, and November 7 in Gregorian time.
There’s a lesson here for world politics. If it took Europe 350 years to adopt something as simple, utilitarian and benign as a useful calendar reform, how long will it take the world’s countries to agree on more complex, divisive and expensive questions – ranging from global warming to nuclear disarmament to financial regulation?
I’ve sometimes thought about shifting to Orthodox Christmas myself. You’d save money by buying all your decorations and gifts at the post-holiday sales. You could shop at your leisure after everyone else was out of the stores, and you could reflect peacefully on the meaning of Christmas without the distraction of a million department store Santas.
For now at least I’m sticking with the Gregorian Christmas, despite the inconvenience, and Christmas blogging will continue at this site through January 6. Today, though, I want to take a break from the heavy theological blogging; after a post on the Trinity I think we all need and deserve a rest. It’s also just possible that some of you aren’t at your sharpest this New Year’s Day. We’ll get back to the meaning of Christmas tomorrow; today let me just share with you a Christmas and New Year gift: Walter Mead’s Top Ten Ways For Students and Young People To Get Intimidatingly Smart in the New Year.
This list won’t teach you everything you need to know; no top ten list can do that. But it will teach you a lot about how the world works. My list of reading suggestions and information sources is heavily tilted toward British and American history, political economy and ideas. Whether you like them or not, agree with them or not, this is the history and these are the ideas that have played a leading part in the making of the modern world.
You may be a young revolutionary burning with the desire to destroy this cruel and unjust world system before it buries us all in an ecological or social catastrophe of some kind. Very well: but you need to understand it before you can work effectively against it.
You may be a proud young American from a non-Anglo background determined to make your mark on American society and change it for the better. Excellent; we need you and I hope you succeed. You, more than anyone, will benefit from learning the Power Secrets of the Wasps – and then turning that knowledge to your own advantage.
Whatever kind of person you are, reading the Mead List in 2010 is guaranteed to make you wiser in council and more fearsome in debate. One of my Bard students once told me after he began with this program that after a couple of months he noticed that he was “winning more arguments with my father.” Another student once told me that this list helped him ace his interview for the Rhodes.
So here, in ascending order, is the Mead List. This isn’t all you need to read, but you have to start somewhere. Get this done and by the end of 2010 you will amaze your friends, impress your professors and frustrate your foes. Enjoy!
10. Read The Economist every week. This really is the best weekly news source in English, and it is generally written in the best English of any weekly source. Trust me on this: following this magazine is the best way to stay plugged in to world news.
9. Read the front section of the Financial Times every day. What the Economist is to the weekly news, the FT is to the daily papers. It offers better international coverage than any American newspaper, and it is written for busy people with no time to waste. Read the back sections on business and finance if you are a budding tycoon; but the front section of this excellent paper should be part of your daily routine. On the weekends, read the excellent book reviews and essays in the Arts section.
8. Read two books by Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is shorter and easier to read than the more famous Wealth of Nations; reading it first will make the second book easier to understand — and help you understand why Smith and so many other people consider capitalism ultimately a moral system.
7. Read at least the first volume of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Classical scholarship has come a long way since this book was written in the late 1700s, but it remains a major landmark in historical writing, a fantastic read and an extraordinary example of English prose style. There are six volumes in the set; George III’s younger brother Prince William Henry thought this was too many and Gibbon proudly presented him with the first two volumes the Prince commented “Another damned thick book. Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?”
6. Read all the John Milton you can. Start this Christmas season with his magnificent Nativity Ode, then sample his shorter poems. Go on at least to Paradise Lost and the greatest work against censorship ever written, the Areopagitica. It won’t be easy but it will make you smart.
5. Read The History of England by Thomas Babington Macaulay (the Amazon link is to a $0.99 Kindle version; the complete five volumes are harder to find in print and I haven’t the heart to recommend an abridgment). This is a history of the 1688 Glorious Revolution that made Parliament supreme in England. The American Founding Fathers believed that our Revolution of 1776 was a defense of the principles of the Glorious Revolution in England. Macaulay’s history is sometimes smug, unfair and one sided, but he captures the spirit of this world shattering event magnificently, and his prose is sublime. Macaulay was also a British administrator in India; Indian education and law today still bear his imprint. Read this book to know where your freedoms come from and to see what your language can do.
4. Read The Federalist Papers. These short essays were originally written something like blog posts. Intended to persuade Americans to ratify the proposed constitution, the Federalist Papers will make you smarter about the American political system and help you think more clearly about how the world works.
3. Read The Bostonians by Henry James. This is James ‘light’; it’s much more accessible than a lot of his later work. Unlike much of his work it’s also set in the United States. Set in the years after the Civil War, it’s a novel that investigates the relationship between North and South and between men and women.
2. Read The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle. (Book link again is for a $0.99 Kindle edition.) This may be the most challenging book on the list, but if you stick to it and work at it, The French Revolution will teach you more about world history and the human condition than most people learn in four years of college. Carlyle was hugely influential on both sides of the Atlantic in the nineteenth century. It often seems to me that Moby Dick should be read as a kind of homage to and adaptation of Carlyle’s French Revolution; certainly Melville learned a lot of his prose style from Carlyle – as they both borrowed from Shakespeare. The book will violate your expectations of a history book; read it as more of an epic poem in prose and you may find it easier to follow. It’s also helpful to refer to simpler histories of the French Revolution as you go – or check in Wikipedia to get the background on events and characters that confuse you.
1. Read the Bible, cover to cover. Some of it will make you think; some of it will make you angry; some of it will make no sense whatever. But this book, more than any other, has shaped American and western history and culture. You should know this book. There are plenty of excellent translations; though a bit PC at times the New Revised Standard Version is used in many mainline churches and has been approved by Catholic scholars. It is the version I most often use. The New International Version, more favored in evangelical churches, also has a high scholarly reputation. Both owe a large debt to the greatest of English translations, the King James Version. The KJV as it is known was read by English speakers everywhere and for more than 300 years was THE English-language version of the Bible (among Protestants; Catholics read the Douay.) You should read some of the Bible in the KJV just to know what the fuss was about, but the newer versions are often more accurate and understandable to contemporary readers. Start with Genesis 1:1 and read right through Revelations 22:21 a few chapters at a time. Don’t try to read this book in large chunks; it will frustrate you. A few minutes a day, a few pages at a time is the way to do it. Harry Truman read the Bible cover to cover five times while he was president: if he could do that while winning World War II, demobilizating the US from its greatest military effort ever, and laying the foundations of America’s strategy during the Cold War, you should be able to fit this into your busy day.