Reflection on historical scholarship … David Olusoga on the cult of progress

In this blogpost we responded to requests for book reviews linked to a teacher subject knowledge reading list. It’s a resource that we can keep expanding as #obhd. Please send additions when you find them.

We are also keen to share colleagues’ thoughts about useful books they have read. How has a book changed your thinking? How has a book given you new ideas for future practice?

In this series of daily blogposts, teacher trainees reflect on a book that they read and discussed with their mentors. The purpose of this reading was not necessarily for use directly in teaching, rather to emphasise to trainees the importance of continuing to update their subject knowledge and the value of discussion with colleagues. Sometimes the reading has led directly to specific teaching ideas for a particular class or to a change in practice, but the posts also illustrate the different ways in which reading and discussing historical scholarship can support continuing professional development – for experienced teachers as much as for trainees.

Today’s reflection on David Olusoga’s book ‘First Contact and the Cult of Progress’ is written by James Patterson. 

Why we chose this:
The British Empire was the next topic I was teaching to my Year 8 class (after a focus on the transatlantic slave trade and a lesson on the Enlightenment as well). My mentor and I thought this would be a good book for us to read and recommend to some students. This is because Olusoga focuses both on the creation of various new empires and on how the apparently ‘superior and unstoppable’ European progress, founded on enlightenment rationalism, came crashing down with the start of the First World War. Moreover, this book focuses a lot on art and would perhaps be a new and exciting way for students to explore aspects of the past. Obviously it also connected to the two-part BBC documentary series that the students could be encouraged to watch instead/as well.  In what follows I offer a summary of two particular chapters.

 ‘First contact, Chapter 2: A Mariner Nation’
Having just taught my Year 8s about the British participation in the transatlantic slave trade, it was interesting to read about Portugal’s trade with West African countries in the 15th and 16th centuries. Olusoga describes Portugal’s naval ventures abroad as representing the new age of knowledge and discovery for Europe. He depicts the trade that went on with West African societies as turning Portuguese cities, like Lisbon, into an eclectic mix of peoples and foreign goods, with kings in the Kingdom of Kongo even sending their younger relatives to be educated in European languages and religion. Although the Portuguese themselves did shamefully start the transatlantic slave trade in the 15th century, it is still fascinating to read about the symbiotic relationship Portugal had with some West African peoples.

The Cult of Progress, Chapter 12 – The Plunge of Europe
Olusoga ends the book fittingly by discussing the impact that the First World War had on European perceptions of their own progress. The notion that Western civilisation was rational, sophisticated and humane came crashing down with the start of WWI, with Europeans reduced to the same barbarism that they believed was the hallmark of primitive peoples. Olusoga does not fail to point out the irony in this. He highlights that before WWI, the machine-gun was a weapon that had been primarily used on ‘uncivilised’ peoples of the colonies, whereas now, it had been turned on its creators. Having previously discussed how African masks became seen as symbols of African savagery, he also points out how – during WWI – another mask came to symbolise Europe’s own barbarism: the gas mask. These two features of the war are very adeptly used by Olusoga to highlight the point when many Europeans came to terms with the fact savagery and barbarism were not exclusive to external peoples, and that enlightenment rationalism did not guarantee the survival of a civilisation. I personally acquired a slightly new perspective on how revolutionary the First World War was, as I had been unaware of how unstoppable many thought Western progress was and how detrimental the war was to this view.

How will this affect my teaching?
I have already recommended this book to Year 7 students at parents’ evening and have had a few discussions with some students about it.  The book has also inspired me to use more art in my lessons. When discussing the impact of WWI on public perceptions of warfare, I used the paintings of Otto Dix as Olusoga does in this book. I used Dix’s work as it is a far cry from pre-WWI, European paintings of warfare, as soldiers are depicted as the victims, not heroes.

Please do share more examples of reading, thinking and discussing historical scholarship as blogposts by sending them to enquiries@history.org.uk.

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