Lesson 1 of 3
One 50-minute class period

What Is an Idealist?

From the Unit:

Learning Objectives

This lesson will help students:

  • Define the word idealist.
  • Explain why Sargent Shriver is described as an idealist.
  • Understand the ways in which personal history can impact the beliefs we hold and the choices we make.
  • Consider inspirations for idealism from their own experiences.


Why should students study the life of Sargent Shriver? While there are many ways to answer this question, one answer that inspired the production of this film was the belief that Shriver’s life offers important lessons about the power of idealism to solve social problems such as poverty, to promote peace, and to nurture civic participation. Explaining his decision to title the film American Idealist, Bruce Orenstein, the film’s producer, explains,

Actually nobody explicitly stated to me that Sarge Shriver was an idealist. In fact for many, the word idealist carries connotations of someone whose thoughts about life are unrealizable, not practical. Yet, virtually to a person, when I talked with Shriver’s colleagues and friends they used the term idealist.1

In this lesson, students will gain a deeper understanding of idealism through exploring Shriver’s life and accomplishments. Watching American Idealist will give students a rich collection of evidence documenting Shriver’s idealism. For example, when Shriver is asked by a reporter, “Do you really believe that poverty can be wiped out?” Shriver responds assertively, “Yes, I do.” Throughout the film, we see Shriver taking on challenges whole- heartedly, whether it was the Peace Corps or the War on Poverty. A friend and colleague of Shriver, Edgar May, described Shriver’s idealism best when he said,

We were talking about outlandish dreams—unrealistic expectations. Whether it was Sarge Shriver saying “No, no, no, we’re not going to have 50,000 children in Head Start this summer; we’re going to have half a million...” that’s vintage Sargent Shriver. Optimism. Hope.

Viewing the whole film will give students a deeper understanding of Shriver’s idealism and how this idealism influenced his approach to public policy. Viewing the opening (Chapter 1) and Chapter 2 of the film provides students with sufficient information to begin to analyze Shriver’s idealism and how it was fueled by his biography.

Students begin the lesson by thinking about the meaning of the word idealist. Even students who are unfamiliar with this word can begin to tease apart its meaning by looking closely at the word’s root—“ideal.” The abstract concept of idealism is made more concrete when students have to identify an idealist from their own lives. A discussion about what makes these people idealistic provides a vehicle for reflecting on the dictionary definition of the term. Throughout this lesson, students will build on their under- standing of what it means to be an idealist, and by the end of this lesson they will construct their own definition of this term.

In the main activity of this lesson, students watch selected portions of American Idealist. (As mentioned above, this lesson could also be implemented with students viewing the entire film.) The three-minute introduction of the film provides information that helps answer the question, “Why did people call Sargent Shriver an idealist?” For example, Colman McCarthy recounts how people told Shriver he was “doomed to fail,” yet Shriver continued to develop new social programs. In this brief clip, we hear Shriver connect actions to values as he proudly explained how Peace Corps volunteers were “letting their actions speak for their hearts and for their minds and their country.” Debriefing the introduction of the film not only provides an opportunity to understand Shriver’s work and attitude, but it also provides another opportunity for students to reflect on the definition of the word idealist.

At this point in the lesson, students might wonder how Shriver came to be an “American Idealist.” Adolescence is an important period of identity development. Consciously or unconsciously, students think about who they are, how they came to be that way, and who they want to be. To help students explore questions about identity, it is often useful to provide them with the opportunity to consider how other people’s identities have been shaped by their biographies. In the case of Sargent Shriver, we can explore how his ideal- ism was influenced by his family, friends, personal experiences, and historical context. In Chapter 3 of American Idealist, we learn about Hilda Shriver, Sargent’s politically active mother. We see how Robert Shriver, Sargent’s father, took him along when he did charitable work in the tenements of Baltimore or New York. Catholicism is another important aspect of Shriver’s life, as revealed in this film. His parents’ founding of the magazine Common weal is one example of how the Shriver family’s interpretation of Catholicism led them to respect the dignity and humanity of all people, regardless of race, gender, or class. The film also chronicles how Shriver gained personal insights into poverty when his family lost its fortune during the Depression. By using their film notes to construct identity charts for Sargent Shriver, students can synthesize their knowledge about Shriver’s life. This prepares them to discuss the relationship between Shriver’s biography and his idealism.

A discussion of idealism might also focus on the question of why many people associate idealism with being impractical. According to Orenstein, the same individuals who use the term idealism when describing Shriver, “strongly objected to the term idealist” in the title of the film. They told Orenstein that Shriver wasn’t an “out of touch,” “pie in the sky” politician. Orenstein explains, “Because Shriver combined both political pragmatism with a hope that we could be different, we could do better...one close friend of his actually suggested the film be called The Practical Idealist."2 What makes Shriver such a fascinating and important subject for study is how he defied the stereotype of the “out of touch” idealist through his pragmatic approach to public policy.

The follow-through activity asks students to present their understanding of idealism as a “recipe.” This task allows students to develop their own interpretation of idealism. While the recipes themselves provide insight into students’ definitions of idealism, it is their explanations—either written or oral—that illuminate how students used the example of Sargent Shriver, in addition to their previous knowledge, to come to this understanding.

By the end of this lesson, students should be able to reflect on the role of idealists in society. Orenstein writes,

Growth and change cannot come about without people who are passionate about what they believe in and fervently stick to their ideals. The change agents are always idealists. They make us “believe in the horizons of the possible,” as one of Shriver’s colleagues describes him. Idealists are the ones who imagine and work for a world that is more humane and enlightened than what the world’s hardnosed political pragmatics believe it could ever be. Without idealists, there can be no progress.3

Surely Shriver’s style of idealism contributed to progress for the many Americans, and those outside of the United States, who benefited from programs he developed, including Head Start and the Peace Corps.

Ultimately, American Idealist presents idealism in a positive light. Yet students might also consider how idealism, if fueled by racist ideology for example, can be very dangerous. A final discussion might focus on how idealism, especially in the form of a powerful leader, has been used and abused throughout history.


  • 1 : Bruce Orenstein, personal e-mail, April 28, 2008.
  • 2 : Ibid.
  • 3 : Ibid.




Post the words ideal and idealist on the board and ask students to define these words in their journals.

Then, have students look up the definition of idealist in the dictionary, or you could give them this definition:

Idealist (noun)

  1. a person who cherishes or pursues high or noble principles, purposes, goals, etc.
  2. a visionary or impractical person
  3. a person who represents things as they might or should be, rather than as they are4

Give students a minute to identify someone they know, from their own life or from history, who is an idealist. In pairs, students can explain why this individual is an idealist. Then students can volunteer to share their examples with the whole class. As students present their examples, help them recognize connections between the description of the individuals and the definition of idealist.

Main activity

  1. Introduce the film American Idealist by having students reflect on the meaning of its title. The following prompts can be used to provoke a class discussion: What might it mean to be an “American Idealist”? What do you think the film will be about? Inform students that the film is about a man named Sargent Shriver and that the purpose of this lesson is to understand who Sargent Shriver was and why he was called an idealist. You might ask them to raise their hands if they have heard of him. Listing some of Shriver’s famous relatives (e.g., Maria Shriver, John F. Kennedy, Arnold Schwarzenegger) is another way to stimulate students’ interest in this material.
  2. Show Chapter 1: “Introduction” of the film (0:43–3:55). Before viewing this clip, ask students to record any information that might help them answer the question, “Why did people call Sargent Shriver an idealist?” After the clip, each student can present one item they wrote in their notes. Record this list of answers on the board.
  3. Once students have an understanding of the values and actions that earned Shriver the “idealist” label, you can ask them to consider the question, “How does someone become an idealist?” Give students a few minutes to write about this question in their journals before showing Chapter 3: “Growing Up, the Great Depression and World War II” (11:46–18:46). This chapter focuses on Shriver’s biography. As students watch this clip, ask them to record information about Shriver’s life—about his family, personal experiences, and historical context. To help students organize their notes, a graphic organizer has been included with this lesson.
  4. Students can share their film notes in small groups, adding any information they might have missed. This step prepares students for a class discussion focused on the question, “What aspects of Shriver’s personal history contributed to his idealism?” Other possible discussion prompts include:
  • What ideals formed the foundation of Shriver’s idealism? To what extent do you embrace these ideals?
  • How did Shriver direct his idealism toward projects that made the world a better place? Is it possible for idealism to be directed toward actions that are harmful to people?
  • Why are idealists sometimes called “impractical”?
  • What might the world be like without idealists?


Ask students to create a “recipe for idealism.” For this task, they need to identify the ingredients that go into making someone an idealist, and then consider the relative importance of each of these factors. A worksheet has been provided to help students with this task. Students can explain the rationale behind their recipes in writing or through an oral presentation. The rationale should refer to information from the film American Idealist as well as their own knowledge and experiences.



  • Handout 2: “Recipe for Idealism” and accompanying essays or presentations explaining this recipe (see follow-through for more information).
  • Students can turn in an “exit card” where they define the word idealist and connect this definition to the life and work of Sargent Shriver.
  • Students can write a brief essay answering the questions: Why do you think they decided to call this film American Idealist? What aspects of Shriver’s personal history contributed to his idealism?


Idealists are not just famous people in history; they are all around us. Students can interview an idealist whom they know personally. As a class, you can develop an interview protocol or you can suggest that students use the following questions:

  • What ideals do you hold?
  • How do these ideals influence your choices and behavior?
  • Has there ever been a time when you have compromised your ideals? If so, describe this moment. Why did you compromise? How did this make you feel?
  • Would you make this same choice again?
  • What is an idealist? Do you consider yourself to be an idealist?

In this lesson, students learn how Sargent Shriver’s biography—his family and his personal experiences—fueled his idealism and the choices he made to commit himself to public service. Students can write their own biographies or draw an identity chart for themselves. Then they can write a personal essay explaining how they think their biographies have shaped their own beliefs, values, and choices.

To many people, the opposite of an idealist is a cynic. To help students understand idealism, you can ask them to define the word cynic. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a cynic is “a person who believes all people are motivated by selfishness”   rather than by ideals. A discussion about cynicism and idealism might focus around the questions, “How does idealism shape the way people think about society and the possibilities for change?” and “How does cynicism shape the way people think about society and the possibilities for change?” You can give students stories from the news and ask them how a cynic or an idealist might respond to this event. To be sure, most of us are not complete idealists or complete cynics. As a final activity, students can draw a continuum—labeling one end “idealist” and the other end “cynic.” After asking students to place Sargent Shriver on this continuum, you can have them place themselves on the idealist–cynic continuum. In writing or in a discussion, students can explain their decision and draw connections between their place on the continuum and their own biographies.

Idealism is one theme represented in popular music. Analyzing a song, such as John Lennon’s “Imagine,” can provoke interesting discussion about what it means to be an idealist. Students can identify the ideals, or values, represented by the songwriter. Then, based on the definition of idealist they developed in this lesson, students can address if they think the song represents idealism.  Students can also suggest other songs that they think represent idealism.

We have produced three lesson plans to accompany the film

American Idealist: The Story of Sargent Shriver. Get them here!

Download all lessons



Lesson 1 of 3
Democracy & Civic Engagement

What Is an Idealist?

Students learn about idealism through the life and accomplishments of US statesman and activist Sargent Shriver.

Lesson 2 of 3
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Sargent Shriver and Public Service

Students refine their ideas about public service by learning about the mission and early years of the Peace Corps program.

Lesson 3 of 3
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Participation through Public Policy

Students discover how leaders like Sargent Shriver used public policy to fight poverty in the 1960s.

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