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Joseph Schwab (1909–1988)

Education and Career, Scholarly Work, The Practical, Legacy

University of Chicago professor of education and natural sciences, Joseph Schwab was the originator of The Practical, a program for educational improvements based on curriculum deliberations.

Education and Career

Joseph Jackson Schwab was born in Columbus, Mississippi, where he attended a private elementary school. After the sixth grade, Schwab entered the public schools, where he discovered science. As Schwab was virtually alone among his classmates in this interest, the principal of the high school, 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 for the University of Chicago, where he was to remain for almost fifty years, receiving degrees in English literature (Ph.B), zoology (S.M.), and genetics (Ph.D). Schwab was also a Visiting Fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

Since the late 1930s Schwab has had an important impact on educational research and practice, conceptualizing and instigating reform at all levels of schooling. His early work through the 1940s was part of Robert Hutchins's efforts to create an undergraduate curriculum of general education at Chicago. Schwab taught practically every course in the College of the University of Chicago, developed classroom discussion as a viable alternative to lecture, worked on integrating the humanities and natural sciences, and won the award for excellence in teaching twice, the first to do so. In 1942 he began writing comprehensive examinations for the biological sciences, and by 1947 had become chairman of the natural sciences staff.

Scholarly Work

In the 1950s and 1960s, as the "Hutchins College" period ended, Schwab turned his attention to wider pursuits. From 1959 to 1961 he was chairman of the Committee on Teacher Preparation for the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, he coauthored the Curriculum's Biology Teacher's Handbook, and edited the first editions of its textbooks. He helped found The Journal of General Education, and consulted on The Great Books of the Western World. He also worked in Jewish education as chairman of the Academic Board of the Melton Research Center at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

In College Curriculum and Student Protest (1969) Schwab diagnosed student turmoil as symptomatic of failures in schooling. He prescribed curricular changes and teaching devices that were based on liberal arts, which could actively engage students in their education. Arguing against undergraduate education as a body of rote methods or rhetoric of conclusions, he explored the liberal arts as resources for students to find their own questions for texts or problems so they could become their own critics. Most importantly, he showed how the disintegrating college communities could be restored and renewed.

Schwab is best remembered for the last and most comprehensive of his critiques of education, focused on curriculum making. His invited address in 1969 at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association challenged the field of curriculum research, which had become moribund because of inveterate unexamined reliance on direct application of theories, especially from the social sciences. Schwab believed that any given theory was necessarily incomplete in terms of its subject and oversimplified the complexities of problematic situations. His proposal that the field must identify and solve its own practical problems continues to energize curricular debate.

The Practical

The Practical requires that five bodies of disciplines and experience be represented in a collaborative group that undertakes the task of curriculum revision. Schwab called four of these the "commonplaces" of educational thinking, which require representatives of the affected learners, teachers, subject matters, and (sociocultural) milieux. The fifth is that of the curriculum specialist, who must work with the other representatives to ensure that the commonplaces are properly coordinated, because changes in any one will have consequences for the others. Unbalanced deliberations, either dominated by a single commonplace or omitting some, lead to successive "bandwagon" curricula, each based on an exclusive theory (e.g., of child development, teacher needs, subject matter innovation, or social change). Schwab designed a set of eclectic arts to join theories across disciplines so that scholarly and research materials could be shaped into teachable curricula. He developed another set of practical arts for the problem-posing and problem-solving activities required by the unsatisfactory curricular situation.

As the members of the curriculum group discover and develop their capacities in an actual deliberation, they turn the commonplaces into "particular places," by perceiving details in the "pinch" of their problem. The process is incremental, local, and ongoing. Institutions need gradual, coherent improvements, not destruction. They must discover their own problems and resources, without dictation by centralized authorities. Ongoing deliberations change a problematic situation into a situation of problems discerned and solutions undertaken and evaluated. The deliberative process develops in a spiral rather than a serial progression as the deliberators discover what solutions can run with which problems, what problems or solutions can be combined with other problems and solutions, and how the effects of solutions can have unintended consequences that create further problems and opportunities.

From 1969 to 1986 Schwab produced six articles (the last two unpublished) on the various dimensions of the The Practical, the first three of which are included in a compilation by Ian Westbury and Neil J. Wilkoff. Practical 1 gives his basic critique in terms of flights from the curriculum field. Practical 2 demonstrates the proper use of the eclectic arts on theories through an imagined course in educational psychology. Practical 3 focuses on the constitution and functions of the curriculum group. Practical 4 gives special attention to the institutional role of the curriculum specialist as chairperson of the group. Practical 5 and Practical 6 describe the eclectic arts for development and use of commonplaces that can map pluralistic views of subject matter, using literature and psychology as examples.


As a scholar and teacher Schwab pulled together such wide experience in the five bodies of disciplines necessary for curriculum development that he became a genuine polymath in education. He was quick to trace positions to unexpected consequences. Expressed in a down-to-earth no-nonsense rhetoric, this made him a formidable and provocative presence in public forums and the classroom.

Schwab's concern for education as a deliberative activity connects him to John Dewey and American Pragmatism. His respect for the formulations and proper uses of theories connects him to the Aristotelian distinction between theoretical, practical, and productive activities. Internationally, educational practitioners in the European Didaktik tradition, especially in Germany and Norway, have recognized the The Practical.

Overall, Schwab's continuing effect is that of Socratic gadfly whose stinging critiques have stimulated education by pointing out chronic deficiencies and indicating new directions for inquiry and action. The recurring nature of educational problems makes much of his work, such as that on defining and testing objectives, still applicable.


PEREIRA, PETER. 1984. "Deliberation and the Arts of Perception." Journal of Curriculum Studies 16 (4):347–366.

REID, WILLIAM A. 1999. Curriculum as Institution and Practice: Essays in the Deliberative Tradition. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

SCHWAB, JOSEPH J. 1969. College Curriculum and Student Protest. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

SCHWAB, JOSEPH J. 1976–1977. Transcriptions of Seminars Taught at the Institute for Research on Teaching at Michigan State University. Archived at the Museum of Education, University of South Carolina.

SCHWAB, JOSEPH J. 1983. "The Practical 4: Something for Curriculum Professors to Do." Curriculum Inquiry 13 (3): 239–265.

SCHWAB, JOSEPH J., and ROBY, THOMAS W., IV. 1986. "The Practicals 5 and 6: Finding and Using Commonplaces in Literature and Psychology." Archived at the Museum of Education, University of South Carolina.

SHULMAN, LEE S. 1991. "Joseph Jackson Schwab." Remembering the University of Chicago, ed. Edward Shils. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

TYLER, RALPH W. 1984. "Personal Reflections on The Practical 4." Curriculum Inquiry 14 (1):97–102.

WESTBURY, IAN, and WILKOFF, NEIL J., eds. 1978. Joseph J. Schwab, Science, Liberal Education, and Curriculum: Selected Essays [includes "Practicals 1–3"]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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