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.