Lesson 2 of 3
One 50-minute class period

Sargent Shriver and Public Service

From the Unit:

Learning Objectives

This lesson will help students:

  • Define public service.
  • Understand the formation and mission of the Peace Corps.
  • Identify reasons why people perform public service.
  • Refine their own ideas about public service and universe of responsibility.


In a speech to university students in 1965, Sargent Shriver remarked, "Built into each individual's experience must be an occasion for giving, a task of humanity, an act of sharing and sacrifice." As students learned in Lesson 1: What Is An Idealist?, this idea of public service-performing actions that benefit a larger community-was central to Shriver's upbringing. Shriver's parents, Robert and Hilda, modeled "sharing and sacrifice." For example, they worked to improve conditions for the poor in New York and they organized support for political causes. As an adult, Shriver continued to serve his community, whether on a battleship in the South Pacific during World War II, as president of the Board of Education in Chicago, as founder of the Special Olympics, or as director of the War on Poverty. When Shriver married Eunice Kennedy in 1953, he joined another family that was committed to public service. In 1961, his brother-in-law, newly elected President John F. Kennedy, asked Shriver to lead the Peace Corps. Made as a campaign promise to university students, the Peace Corps was designed to give young Americans the opportunity to serve their country through volunteer work in developing nations.

This lesson begins by having students learn about the role of university students in laying the ground work for the Peace Corps. In a campaign speech at the University of Michigan, Kennedy asserted, "Americans are willing to contribute."The audience took Kennedy up on this challenge by passing around a petition for students to serve overseas after graduation. Since the founding of the Peace Corps in 1961, more than 200,000 volunteers have served overseas.

Why would Michigan students, and eventually students around the country, volunteer for the Peace Corps? Why would Americans, many of them young adults, feel compelled to travel far from home to help people they have never met and who do not speak their language? Mary Johnson, a 1961 Peace Corps volunteer, explained that her cohort had many reasons for volunteering, but chief among them was the desire to "go out into the world and try to make a difference."1 As students consider why young adults volunteered (and continue to volunteer) to join the Peace Corps, they will also reflect on the role of public service in their own lives.

Often students think about volunteering or public service as something that is done to benefit others. And in the 1960s, critics argued that the Peace Corps was merely a political gesture on the part of the United States government to help win the Cold War through winning "the hearts and minds" of people around the world. So Shriver worked diligently to help Americans, especially lawmakers, recognize that the Peace Corps had a larger purpose-that this program had the potential to solve real problems, such as hunger, while also helping young Americans develop a more expansive definition of their civic responsibility. He explained,

Peace Corps volunteers . . . have come to realize . . . that the world is a real community. They have learned that people can cross barriers of language and culture and customs. They've learned foreign languages, yes, but more important they have learned to hear the voice of the human heart in any language.2

Shriver argued that Peace Corps volunteers and the communities in which they served all benefited from this program. He explained, "You want to be of consequence and this program appeared to convey to people that they could be of consequence in a way that would help people around them, and in a way that would ultimately help themselves."3 Mary Johnson agreed with this description, sharing that she learned valuable skills and lifelong lessons about education, democracy, women's rights, and cross-cultural understanding through her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer. "The experience of living in another culture . . . was invaluable," she said.4 Thus, one goal for these lessons is to help students not only think about how communities may benefit from public service, but also to analyze the ways individuals can benefit from performing public service.

Another purpose of this lesson is to encourage students to think about who is responsible for performing public service. In American Idealist Shriver says, "Of all our ideals none surpasses the importance of service." Why is public service so important? To whom? What would happen if nobody felt responsible to act in ways that benefited a larger community? The concept "universe of responsibility" can help answer these questions. This phrase refers to the individuals and groups we feel obligated to protect and support-the people about whom we care.5 Through watching American Idealist, students get a sense of how Shriver constructed his universe of responsibility to include individuals from all walks of life-people in rural towns in Mississippi, in villages in Ghana, and in public housing in Chicago. He was loyal to his family but also extended care to those outside of his family, including people with disabilities.

In this lesson, students will consider who they include in their own universe of responsibility and how this answer influences their ideas about public service. Recent reports indicate that many youth may not have the opportunity or the motivation to perform public service. Volunteering among adolescents is now on the decline. A fact sheet published by CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) in April 2007 reports,

The 2006 Civic and Political Health of the Nation Report found an eight-percentage point decrease in the volunteer rate among 15-to 25-year-olds from 2002 to 2006.... Also, the Monitoring the Future (MTF) surveys of twelfth, tenth, and eighth graders all show declines in reported volunteering in recent years.

At the same time, in the article "Saving the World in Study Hall," journalist Nicolas Kristof presents several examples of high school students who have dedicated huge amounts of time to help people from all over the world. When confronted with these statistics and stories, students can discuss what motivates people, especially youth, to perform public service, as well as the factors that influence some people to define their universe of responsibility broadly, while others feel a sense of responsibility only to the people they know personally.


  • 1 : Mary Johnson, interview, May 13, 2008.
  • 2 : American Idealist: The Story of Sargent Shriver.
  • 3 : Ibid.
  • 4 : Mary Johnson, interview, May 13, 2008.
  • 5 : The phrase “universe of responsibility” is built on psychologist and genocide scholar Helen Fein’s “universe of obligation.” She has explained that nations construct a universe of obligation to refer to the circle of individuals and groups “towards whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for [amends].” Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide (New York: Free Press, 1979), p. 4. Individuals and groups who are not included in a nation’s universe of obligation are vulnerable to discrimination and persecution.


•    Chapter 5: “Idealism and the Peace Corps” (26:30–34:17)
•    Special Feature: “The Student Petition That Inspired the Peace Corps” (19:40–20:15)
•    Chapter 4: “Politics and the Peace Corps” (18:47–26:29) provides background information about how and why the Peace Corps was started (optional)
•    Handout 1: Fishbowl Discussion Preparation Sheet (optional)
•    World map (optional)



Distribute the following quotation to students and ask a student to read it aloud:

How many of you, who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can! And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past.

Give students a few minutes to react to this quotation in writing. The following prompt can be used to provoke their thinking: Imagine you are in college and the president of the United States visited your campus and made these remarks. What message do you think the president is trying to express? How might students react to this message? How might you react?

Allow students the opportunity to discuss their responses with a partner. Then ask students if any of them can guess the context for this quotation. Do they know who said it, and when or where it was said?

Finally, show the clip, "The student petition that inspired the Peace Corps." You might begin with the footage from October 14, 1960, when Kennedy made a campaign stop at the University of Michigan and where he gave the above-quoted statement. Stop here and ask students to predict how the students might have reacted when they heard Kennedy's words. What might they have done the next day or the next week? Then continue with the rest of the segment that documents one of the ways students responded to Kennedy's request for service: by initiating the idea of the Peace Corps. Before proceeding to the main part of this lesson, check to make sure students have a basic understanding of the Peace Corps and its mission.

Main activity

  1. Students will watch Chapter 5 of American Idealist, "Idealism and the Peace Corps" (26:30-34:19). Transition from the warm-up activity to this clip by explaining that once Kennedy was elected president he recruited his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, to run the Peace Corps. (This material is covered in Chapter 4 of the film, "Politics and the Peace Corps.") As students watch Chapter 5, ask them to record at least five ideas or facts that they learn about the Peace Corps.
  2. Begin debriefing the film by asking each student to contribute one idea or fact from their notes. Students can add any new ideas to their list. By the end of this go-around, students should have recorded information that answers questions such as: "How many people volunteered to serve in the Peace Corps?"; "Where did they go?"; "What did they do in their host countries?" As students share information about where Peace Corps volunteers were sent, you can ask them to locate these countries on a map.
  3. Once students have an understanding of the Peace Corps program, they are ready to think more deeply about what the program represents about public service. First, have students define the term public service, or you can refer them to this definition: Public service-actions performed to benefit the community (local, national, or global), often supported or regulated by the government. Then ask students to use their film notes to answer the question, "Is the Peace Corps a form of public service? Why or why not?" They can answer this question in small groups and then report their responses to the larger class.
  4. Now students have the background knowledge to engage in a meaningful discussion about the purpose of public service. The "fishbowl" discussion structure, explained below, gives students the opportunity to be active listeners and speakers. You can select your own question or quotation to guide the discussion, or you can allow students to begin by discussing what stood out to them in the film. If you prefer more structure, review "Handout 1: Fishbowl Discussion Preparation Sheet," which includes three quotations from the film and related questions.


To synthesize ideas from this lesson, ask students to think about their own ideas and experiences with public service. This can be as simple as asking students to respond, in writing or in speaking, to the question, "Does everyone have the responsibility to perform public service?" At this time, you could also introduce the phrase universe of responsibility: the individuals and groups we feel obligated to protect and support-the people about whom we care. Students can identify the groups and individuals Sargent Shriver included in his universe of responsibility. Watching the entirety of American Idealist will help students answer this question more thoroughly. Students can also identify the individuals and groups they include in their universe of responsibility.

Another way to help students consider their own ideas about public service is by having them express their opinion about statements such as:

  • It is more important to serve in your local community than in other communities around the world.
  • National or foreign service should be required of all citizens.
  • Public service is as important today as it was during the 1960s.
  • Young people are not as committed to public service today as they were during the 1960s.
  • It is important that people define their universe of responsibility to include people who are different from themselves.

A "Four Corners Activity" provides a useful structure for a discussion about personal opinions. Label the four corners of the room with signs reading: strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree. Once students have had a few minutes to consider their personal response to the statements, read one of the statements aloud and ask students to move to the corner of the room that best represents their opinion. Once students are in their places, ask for volunteers to explain their position. Encourage students to switch corners if someone presents an idea that causes a change of mind. After a representative from each corner has defended his or her position, you can allow students to question each others' evidence and ideas. This is an appropriate time to remind students about norms for listening carefully to each other and responding respectfully.

Guidelines for a Fishbowl Discussion

  1. Make sure that students are prepared before the discussion begins. This typically means that students have had the opportunity to think and/or write about the topic for discussion.
  2. Divide the class in half. Ask half of the class to move their chairs into a circle in the middle of the room. The other half of the class will stand outside of the circle.
  3. Before beginning the discussion, review ground rules about how to participate in a respectful and thought-provoking conversation. For example, you might remind students about respectful listening and not interrupting the speaker. You can also review how to challenge each other's ideas without challenging the integrity of the person who said them.
  4. Ask a student "in the fishbowl" to begin the discussion by sharing something that he or she wrote. It could be a question or a comment. If nobody responds, the facilitator (probably the teacher, but it could also be a student) can call on someone in the fishbowl to respond.
  5. While students in the fishbowl are having a discussion, ask the students on the outside to record notes. You might ask them to record at least one idea they agree with, one idea that they disagree with, and one question that they have. Some teachers ask students to take notes on the process as well, recording data about who is speaking and how students are following the ground rules.
  6. After approximately 15 minutes, students switch roles.


  • Students can write a brief essay in which they interpret one of the following quotations, explain if they agree with its message, and then share a personal connection to the ideas represented by the statement:
  • "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." - John F. Kennedy
  • "Built into each individual's experience must be an occasion for giving, a task of humanity, an act of sharing and sacrifice." -Sargent Shriver
  • Students can perform a brief speech in favor of or opposing the idea of a National Public Service program. They should refer to the ideas from the film in their speech.


This lesson can be adapted for use with the viewing of the entirety of American Idealist. Before viewing the film, introduce students to the concept of universe of responsibility.  As they watch the film, ask students to identify the individuals and groups Shriver includes in his universe of responsibility. After the film, students can create a visual representation of Shriver’s universe of responsibility. A culminating discussion can focus on questions such as, “What influenced how Shriver defined his universe of responsibility?” and “How did Shriver’s ideas about his universe of responsibility influence his actions?” Students can connect these ideas to themselves by creating a visual representation of their universe of responsibility.

Chapter 6 of American Idealist (“Timberlawn,” 34:19–37:19) describes how the Shriver family, particularly Eunice Shriver, founded the Special Olympics. Eunice Shriver explained, “My sister was mentally retarded . . . [but] did extremely well in sports. She was a very good swimmer and in these kinds of things she would come with us and be very much a part of the family. So I naturally was very adamant to get this kind of program for other children.” Watching this segment of the film provides students with a powerful example of how one’s universe of responsibility is shaped by personal experiences. It raises the question of how individuals develop an expansive sense of social responsibility if their experiences with those outside of their own group are limited. For more information about the Special Olympics refer to their website: www.specialolympics.org.

After this lesson, students might have questions about public service programs today. A research project might entail groups studying one of the following programs and then presenting information to the whole class:

They could also look into local service programs. Drawing from the information in these presentations, students can write an essay reflecting which of the programs appeals to them the most.

Many countries have compulsory military duty and/or civilian service. Indeed, the idea of a mandatory national service program has been debated in the United States for decades. You might ask students to do some research on this issue and participate in their own debate about mandatory public service. Groups of students might also propose models for national service programs.

There are multiple websites aimed at helping people, especially young people, serve the larger community. Students can review these sites and report on the kinds of issues young people appear to care about, based on the information from these sites. Questions you might use to guide a discussion about these websites include: “How many of the projects described on these sites represent local as opposed to national or global issues?” and “What do you learn from these websites about how youth are defining their universe of responsibility?” You can also use these sites as a vehicle to help students explore ways of performing public service around issues that matter to them.

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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