Schwab, Joseph Jackson, 1909-

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Professor of natural sciences and education, University of Chicago.

From the description of Papers, 1939-1988. (University of Chicago Library). WorldCat record id: 52246967

Joseph Jackson Schwab was born on February 2, 1909 in Columbus, Mississippi, where he attended a private elementary school that served as a practice school for the prospective teachers of the local women's college. After the sixth grade, Schwab entered the public schools where he discovered science. As Schwab was virtually alone among his classmates in his interests in science, the principal of the high school, who was a former science teacher, encouraged his creative license by giving him free reign in the school laboratory. Schwab became fascinated with the poisonous snakes and other animals kept there and delighted in setting off homemade gunpowder by pounding it with an ax. He finished high school in three years and in 1924, at the age of fifteen, he set off by train for the University of Chicago where he was to remain for almost fifty years. Schwab quickly grew dissatisfied with the way undergraduate science was taught at Chicago. The excitement he had experienced in learning science as an ongoing process of inquiry, discovery and debate had been reduced to the memorization of dry conclusions as if they were definitive truths. Much of the rest of his career was spent fighting this way of teaching science. He did encounter a few teachers that provided him with positive models of teaching, and among these was James Weber Linn in English. After completing his general requirements in the first five quarters, Schwab spent the rest of his undergraduate time studying the humanities and graduated with a major in English literature in 1930.

The next fall he began graduate study at Chicago using the opportunity to return to his interests in the biological sciences. His attention even then was drawn to the question of how to teach science. Merle Coulter, professor of botany, made a lasting impression on Schwab by having his graduate students read and critique each other's work in small group discussions. To Schwab this way of teaching offered a great deal of promise.

Schwab's graduate career coincided with Robert Hutchins's arrival as president of the University of Chicago and his efforts to revitalize undergraduate education. Schwab quickly became good friends with Hutchins and established a close professional relationship that continued throughout their careers at Chicago and on to Santa Barbara. Through Hutchins, Schwab met two other colleagues who greatly influenced the direction of his thought, Richard McKeon and Ralph Tyler, professors of philosophy and education. McKeon nurtured Schwab's understanding of Aristotle and introduced him to the writings of John Dewey. Throughout their association during the next fifty years, Tyler encouraged Schwab to turn his thought to the value and practice of the liberal arts as well as to develop his own rationale for curriculum development.

Schwab completed his M.S. in zoology in 1936 and then accepted a fellowship in science education at Teachers College, Columbia University. The following year he returned to Chicago as an instructor in the biological sciences. In 1938 he won his first Quantrell award for excellence in teaching, and he received his doctorate in genetics in 1939.

Schwab had become invaluable to Hutchins' effort to create an integrated curriculum because of his knowledge of both the humanities and the natural sciences. He represented the natural sciences in the planning sessions for the fourth year course, Observation, Interpretation, and Integration (OII), a capstone of Hutchins' liberal arts curriculum. Further, he was responsible for developing discussion as a viable alternative to lecture in the core courses and throughout the curriculum. Having found his niche, and a way of maintaining the contact with students which gave him so much satisfaction, Schwab largely abandoned any ambitions of a research career and concentrated on undergraduate teaching.

His value to Hutchins and his associates is reflected in the quick succession of positions Schwab held the next ten years. In 1941, Schwab was hired as an assistant professor in the natural sciences. The following year, Hutchins appointed Schwab to the examiner's office where he wrote the final comprehensive examinations in the biological sciences while continuing to teach OII and courses in biology. Schwab was named Assistant Dean of Students in charge of Student Civilian Defense in 1943. At that time, Hutchins informed him that he would have to have an appointment in one of the graduate divisions in order to eventually secure full professorship. With the help of Tyler and Harold Dunkel, Schwab received an additional appointment as Assistant Professor of Education. He became Associate Professor of Natural Sciences in the College in 1945, Associate Professor of Education in 1946, and Chairman of the College Natural Sciences Staff in 1947. The next year he was elected to the University Senate. In 1949 he assumed full professorship in the natural sciences of the college and was a founding member of the Committee on Social Thought. The next year he achieved the same rank in education and then, in 1951, just ten years after beginning the tenure process, Schwab was named to an endowed chair, becoming the William Rainey Harper Professor of Natural Sciences in the College. In 1953, Schwab became the first member of the faculty to win the Quantrell Award twice.

Schwab's professional work pursued three aims. The first was to reconceptualize the teaching of science in all levels of schooling. He served as Chairman of the Committee on Teacher Preparation for the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study from 1959 to 1961. In this role he wrote The Biology Teacher's Handbook, a key part of the committee's efforts to change teaching methods for high school biology. In addition, he edited the first editions of the textbooks. He gave the Inglis Lecture at Harvard in 1960 and served on numerous boards and committees, including the Committee on General Education of the Association of Higher Education, the National Association of Research on Science Teaching, National Science Foundation Curriculum Improvement Section, the Committee of Curriculum and Training in the Medical and Para-medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health, and Sections on Curriculum Development and Demonstration Programs at the U.S. Office of Education.

A second aim of Schwab's thought was a defense of liberal education, and later its reformulation, when it became apparent in the 1950s that Hutchins' experiment could not be sustained. In this pursuit, Schwab helped to found the Journal of General Education, and served on the editorial boards of other journals, including Curriculum Inquiry and School Review. At the urging of Hutchins, he consulted, along with McKeon, on the Great Books of the Western World project produced under the auspices of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

In a very influential book, College Curriculum and Student Protest, Schwab traced the turmoil on college campuses in the 1960s to the abandonment of the ideals of liberal education. This was a threat Schwab felt very close to home. With the demise of the "Hutchins College" in the 1950s, Schwab largely abandoned undergraduate teaching at Chicago and devoted most of his efforts to the Department of Education. In November of 1963, Schwab proposed a reorganization of the College into a group of separate colleges somewhat similar to the Oxford system. The proposal aroused considerable debate and discussion, but was largely abandoned in favor of the more modest restructuring advocated by the Dean of the College, Wayne Booth, and the University Provost, Edward Levi.

Then in 1969 at an invited address during the annual meeting of the American Educational Researchers Association entitled "The Practical," Schwab presented ideas which revitalized curriculum research. For a field that his colleague, Decker Walker had declared "moribund" several years earlier, Schwab's vision of curriculum development created a great deal of excitement and controversy. He harshly criticized the current use of objectives and argued for a conception of curriculum development that respected the complexities of teachers and students as human beings. He went on to publish four articles which further explicated his vision.

The third field into which Schwab divided his efforts was the area of Jewish education. In the early 1960s he accepted chairmanship of the Academic Board of the Melton Research Center at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Stimulated by several students who encouraged him to consider seriously his religious background, most notably Seymour Fox and Burton Cohen, he published several tracts and a number of articles on character education and related topics. He served as a consultant for Camp Ramah. Schwab tended to keep this work strictly isolated from the rest of his professional life. Thus few of his publications through the Melton Center appear in bibliographies of his work, and most of his colleagues knew little about his work in this field.

In 1974, Schwab retired from the University of Chicago and joined the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, founded by Robert Hutchins in Santa Barbara, California. At the Center, Schwab participated in numerous conversations with colleagues on a wide range of issues, many of which were published in the Center Magazine. He continued writing, publishing and teaching about curriculum development and character education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Claremont College, and Stanford University, among other schools. Schwab was hired as a consultant to help the senior faculty think through the conception of a new institute on the campus of Michigan State University. In the autumns of 1976 and 1977, with his former student Lee Shulman, Schwab conducted a series of seminars that led to the founding of the Institute for Research on Teaching.

Schwab remained in Santa Barbara until 1986 when health problems forced him to move in with his daughter in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he died in 1988.

From the guide to the Schwab, Joseph J. Papers, 1939-1986, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions Collection, 1950-1991, 1961-1987 University of California, Santa Barbara. Davidson Library. Department of Special Collections.
referencedIn William B. Provine collection of evolutionary biology reprints, 20th century. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.
creatorOf Schwab, Joseph J. Papers, 1939-1986 Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library,
creatorOf Schwab, Joseph Jackson, 1909-. Papers, 1939-1988. University of Chicago Library
referencedIn Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions Collection, Series 12: Audio-Visual, ca. 1956-1987 University of California, Santa Barbara. Davidson Library. Department of Special Collections.
creatorOf Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. Records, 1952-1991. University of California, Santa Barbara, UCSB Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. corporateBody
correspondedWith Provine, William B. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Curriculum planning


Birth 1909





Ark ID: w6fx7r1c

SNAC ID: 7466301