of Dr. Steven L. Berg

Puritans: A Fresh Approach to an Old Topic

Today was my first day back on campus since last Monday.  Although I was not well, I could not afford to take another day off.

In my early American history class, I enjoyed a wonderful presentation on the Puritans.  The student who presented the material did an excellent job of integrating material presented earlier in the class period, from his research on the Puritans, and from other disciplines.  Rarely do I have the opportunity to hear a presentation in an area in which I have particular expertise.  However, that was the case today.  Therefore, I was particularly aware of how well the student had integrated and summarized some very complex materials in a way that was accessible to others in the class.

In discussing the Puritan mind, the student talked about a presentation done by David Swan on Guns, Germs, and Steel as the “how” and a presentation I did on individualism and perfectionism as the “why.”  He also brought in additional references to John Calvin than those I had covered and very smoothly showed the influence from Calvin to the ideological development of American thought.

The student ended his presentation by showing a TED talk where Philip Zimbardo discusses the development of evil.  I did not initially recognize Zimbardo’s name, but am aware of the experiment he did with college students who were assigned as jail keepers and prisoners.  It is not a film I would have associated with the topic of Puritanism, but it did lead to a good discussion.

One of the exciting things about having students do presentations is that I am frequently challenged with new material and ways of looking at issues.  The student’s use of Zimbardo lecture is such a case.  In fact, I could see using it the next time I teach early American history.

I felt so lousy today and yet so excited to hear a wonderful and stimulating presentation on a topic that is especially interesting to me.  It was a fresh approach to a topic that has interested me for more years than my student has been alive.

Furthermore, the student demonstrated the type of cross disciplinary approach I want students to take to history as well as integrating various parts of the course from a collection of facts into an understanding of historical concepts.  Because he modeled the approach, it will make it easy for other students to gain a better understanding of what I am trying to have them accomplish in the course.


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