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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Schoenheimer, Henry Philip (1918–1976)

by Margaret H. White

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Henry Philip Schoenheimer (1918-1976), educationist, was born on 12 October 1918 in South Brisbane, son of Australian-born Jewish parents Ferdinand Arthur Schoenheimer, motor mechanic, and his wife Abigail Elizabeth, née Moss. Henry's childhood was at times unhappy, and he left home and Brisbane Grammar School in 1934. He began teaching in North Queensland, at Bloomsbury State School, then transferred to Beatrice River, near Innisfail, in 1936, to Taringa, Brisbane, in 1941, and to Charleville in 1946. While teaching, he studied at the University of Queensland (B.A., 1952) as an external student. As he gained experience, he came to value highly the student-teacher relationship within the learning process and to see education as a dynamic and interactive experience.

Moving to Melbourne in 1951, Schoenheimer taught in turn at Mount Scopus Memorial College and Malvern Grammar School, and studied at the University of Melbourne (Dip.Ed., 1955; B.Ed., 1956; M.Ed., 1961). On 12 October 1954 at the office of the government statist, Queen Street, he married Elizabeth Linda Andernach, a typist and stenographer. He lectured at Swinburne Technical College, and at Monash (1964-71) and La Trobe (1971-73) universities. An enthusiastic proponent of educational reform, he embraced the child-centred theories of thinkers such as Erich Fromm and A. S. Neill, and the practices of such Australian schools as Margaret Lyttle's Preshil. He used Karl Popper's criticism of Plato to support arguments in his lectures. Many students were drawn to his radical ideas. He strongly believed that university lecturers in education should have a background in teaching to enable them to relate theory to practice.

Schoenheimer published school texts, articles and children's books. In 1965-75 he was education correspondent for the Australian. He became a full-time writer and consultant in 1973 and joined the staff of the Australian Council for Educational Research in 1975. Two of his most influential books, Good Schools (Melbourne, 1970) and Good Australian Schools and their Communities (1973), discussed schools at home and abroad where teaching was student-based rather than curriculum dominated. As a leader in the alternative education movement of the 1960s and 1970s, he supported the development of innovative schools, among them the Education Reform Association's school at Donvale. He emphasized that schools should provide links between communities and students.

A secular humanist and an independent thinker, Schoenheimer held high hopes for humanity, but had difficulty in reconciling his ideals with his experiences. He thought that educators had a particular responsibility to find new ways of addressing issues such as over-population, the degradation of the natural environment and the exhaustion of non-renewable resources. In his last public address—given to the Australian School Library Association conference in 1976—he expressed his anxiety about the survival of civilization in the face of the Western world's increasing expectation of affluence and its apparent lack of concern for peace and social justice.

Schoenheimer was a striking figure. That he wore his clothes slightly awry indicated his indifference to social convention. Phillip Adams described him as 'one of those rare people who was greedy to give'. To Stephen Murray Smith, he was 'the sanest, most humane and thoughtful of all critics of the Australian education system'. Schoenheimer committed suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide gas on 24 September 1976 at Kangaroo Ground. Survived by his wife, and their two daughters and two sons, he was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Herald (Melbourne), 1 Oct 1976
  • Age (Melbourne), 6 Oct 1976
  • private information.

Citation details

Margaret H. White, 'Schoenheimer, Henry Philip (1918–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 26 November 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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