Saturday, 17 February 2007

Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, Jon Ronson

Saturday 17th Feb
Having abandoned teaching from textbooks, but still wishing to put the burden of work on my students rather than myself, I’ve themed the first part of this term on one of the few subjects suggested by students as ‘interesting’: Famous People. To start with, in each of the 9th to 11th grade classes I got the kids to play ‘Who Am I?’ - I wrote the names and a brief bio of a selection of famous persons living and dead onto pieces of paper and a student chose one at random, to answer yes/no questions until somebody guessed their identity. It’s a game that is presumably known the world over, and the students seemed to enjoy it. Napoleon was the easiest to guess - once the students had hazarded European and French then there was no hesitation. I was surprised that the only Mongolian I had included, Zanabazar - who is probably the most culturally influential person in Mongolia’s history - proved to be extremely obscure for the students. It seems that beyond the Khans and Sukhbaatar (hero of the revolution, and founder of the still ruling Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party) the students only have a vague notion of their nation’s history. I am sure that they would strongly object to that statement, but that’s the appearance given to me.

Almost half the students - mostly but not exclusively the boys - have no interest in any history beyond The Secret History - the near contemporary narrative account of Genghis Khan’s reign. The Secret History probably comes 3rd place after Harry Potter and the Da Vinci Code as most commonly cited favourite book. Comic book versions of the life of Genghis and his generals are extremely popular with young lads, and even the 4th Grade girls will hotly dispute which of Genghis’ wives was the most intelligent or beautiful. It has been much noted elsewhere that since the beginning of democracy in Mongolia, the cult of Chinggis has grown and grown. Young Mongolians are fiercely proud of their ancestor, and it colours their perception of every other period or person in history.

For example, Adolf Hitler. Hitler, or ‘Gitler’ as the Mongolians usually call him, is, I am sorry to say, greatly admired by the young men I teach. “He was a great general” “He gave great speeches” “Everybody was afraid of him”: these accolades are given in a reverent tone by every student who has spoken on him - except, happily, for the scorn from a handful of the girls who have objected that Hitler was a terrible man. Ironically, however, whilst the lads can accept with an amused grin that Hitler is usually perceived as being the very worst criminal in history in western countries, they are deeply shocked and offended at the notion that Genghis Khan is also often included in the roll-call of historical infamy.

I’m hoping that I can encourage the students to look at other aspects of greatness in historical figures than the numbers of millions murdered or subjugated. I’ve set the classes to do a presentation on a chosen person from history - for myself I’m going to do a slideshow about Ernest Shackleton. A very macho figure, but someone who’s notable achievement was a heroic failure, and who is remembered because of the people his ambition didn’t kill.

I think I’d also like to see how the class respond to reading some Jon Ronson, too. Ronson’s English in “Out of the Ordinary” is clearly written, with short sentences, and to the point. I think that his writing is well within my student’s reading abilities; they hate being given a piece to read that’s more than 500 words long. I’d like to see the students’ reaction to humorous writing about social embarrassment and ostentatiously failing to be a good role model to his son. I’ll try the piece on Goths in Starbucks or the one about getting his trousers mended. With startling generosity, Ronson has posted most of the best short pieces from the book at his Amazon Blog.

Like Larry David, Ronson’s best asset is writing about his own failings and insecurities. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of merit to his attempts at serious ‘offbeat’ journalism, but where the implied Ronson sometimes irritates there, it delights in those pieces that focus entirely on himself. I enjoyed large parts of “Them” - particular the first piece concerning Osama Bin Laden's 'mouthpiece’ Omar Bakri, but grew increasingly irritated by Ronson's faux naiveté in the rest of the book. It was after reading "Them" that I first came across Jon Ronson’s by-line in the Guardian. Initially I read his self-obsessed pieces in a rather sneering manner - “What ‘amusing’ anecdote has Ronson got to say about himself this time, I wonder?” I’d started out reading Auberon Waugh’s columns in much the same way - not that I would wish to draw too strong a comparison between the two writers, beyond the fact that it was what offended me about each writer that initially drew me to reading them.

One thing that Jon Ronson admits in his book, is that he is an occasional self-Googler. Mentioning Jon Ronson in the text of your web site is a well-known technique in the blogging community for artificially boosting site traffic. Within two hours of my first post that mentioned him I had a hit from a blog search for “jon ronson”. The ISP address for the visitor included Ronson in the host name - suggesting that, as a cyber-equivalent of the Devil himself, no sooner do you mention Jon Ronson’s name online, than he appears. The same searcher has visited the site four times, all from Googling “jon ronson”. Curiously, no other ISP has visited the site with that search. And no one at all has arrived by Googling “louis theroux”.