The World Is Your Classroom: Lessons in Self-Renewal

By John W. Gardner

The Futurist (PP52-53)

May-June 2002


An innovative society is made up of individuals who continuously renew their thinking throughout their lives, the late John W. Gardner argued eloquently in his classic book Self-Renewal.


"Keep on growing," the commencement speakers say. "Don't go to seed. Let this be a beginning, not an ending." 


It is a good theme. Yet a high proportion of the young people who hear the speeches pay no heed, and by the time they are middle-aged they are absolutely mummified. Even some of the people who make the speeches are mummified. Why?


Unfortunately the commencement speakers never tell us why their advice to keep on learning is so hard to follow. The people interested in adult education have struggled heroically to increase the opportunities for self-development, and they have succeeded marvelously. Now they had better turn to the thing that is really blocking self-development­-the individual's own intricately designed, self-constructed prison, or to put it another way, the individual's incapacity for self-renewal.


A prison is not quite the appropriate image because the individual does not stop learning in all aspects of his life simultaneously. Many young people have stopped learning in the religious or spiritual dimensions of their lives long before they graduate from college. Some settle into rigid and unchanging political and economic views by the time they are 25 or 30. By their mid-30s most will have stopped acquiring new skills or new attitudes in any central aspect of their lives.


As we mature, we progressively narrow the scope and variety of our lives. Of all the interests we might pursue, we settle on a few. Of all the people with whom we might associate, we select a small number. We become caught in a web of fixed relationships. We develop set ways of doing things.


As the years go by, we view our familiar surroundings with less and less freshness of perception. We no longer look with a wakeful, perceiving eye at the faces of people we see every day, nor at any other features of our everyday world.


That is why travel is a vivid experience for most of us. At home we have lost the capacity to see what is before us. Travel shakes us out of our apathy, and we regain an attentiveness that heightens every experience. The exhilaration of travel has many sources, but surely one of them is that we recapture in some measure the unspoiled awareness of children.


It is not unusual to find that the major changes in life-marriage, a move to a new city, a change of jobs, or a national emergency-break the patterns of our lives and reveal to us quite suddenly how much we had been imprisoned by the comfortable web we had woven around ourselves. Unlike the jailbird, we don't know that we've been imprisoned until after we've broken out.


It was a characteristic experience during the Second World War that men and women who had been forced to break the pattern of their lives often discovered within themselves resources and abilities they had not known to exist. How ironic that it should take war and disaster to bring about self-renewal on a large scale! It is an expensive way to accomplish it.


When we have learned to achieve such self-renewal without wars and other disasters, we shall have discovered one of the most important secrets a society can learn, a secret that will unlock new resources of vitality throughout a society. And we shall have done something to avert the hardening of the arteries that attacks so many societies. People who have lost their adaptiveness naturally resist change. The most stubborn protectors of their own vested interest are those who have lost the capacity for self-renewal.




No one knows why some individuals seem capable of self-renewal while others do not. But we have some important clues as to what the self-renewing person is like, and what we might do to foster renewal.


For self-renewing men and women the development of their own potentialities and the process of self-discovery never end. It is a sad but unarguable fact that most people go through their lives only partially aware of the full range of their abilities. As a boy in California I spent a good deal of time in the Mother Lode country, and like every boy of my age I listened raptly to the tales told by the old-time prospectors in that area, some of them veterans of the Klondike gold rush. Everyone of them had at least one good campfire story of a lost gold mine. The details varied: The original discoverer had died in the mine, or had gone crazy, or had been killed in a shooting scrape, or had just walked off thinking the mine worthless. But the central theme was constant: riches left untapped. I have come to believe that those tales offer a paradigm of education as most of us experience it. The mine is worked for a little while and then abandoned.


The development of abilities is at least in part a dialogue between individuals and their environment. If they have the ability and the environment demands it, it will surely develop. The young person with excellent athletic skills is likely to discover that ability fairly early. Almost any child with the gift for charming grown-ups will have no trouble discovering that talent. But most abilities are not so readily evoked by the common circumstances of life. The "mute, inglorious Miltons" are more numerous than one might suppose, particularly in an age in which even an articulate Milton might go un­noticed, certainly unrewarded. Most of us have potentialities that have never been developed simply because the circumstances of our lives never called them forth. 


Exploration of the full range of our own potentialities is not something that we can safely leave to the chances of life. It is something to be pursued systematically, or at least avidly, to the end of our days. We should look forward to an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our potentialities and the claims of life-not only the claims we encounter but the claims we invent. And by the potentialities I mean not just skills, but the full range capacities for sensing, wondering, learning, understanding, loving, and aspiring.


The ultimate goal of the educational system is to shift to the individual the burden of pursuing his own education. This will not be a widely shared pursuit until we get over our odd conviction that education is what goes on in school buildings and nowhere else. Not only does education continue when schooling ends, but it is not confined to what may be studied in adult education courses. The world is an incomparable classroom, and life is a memorable teacher for those who aren't afraid of her.


Excerpted from Self-Renewal: The Individ­ual and the Innovative Society by John W. Gardner. w.w. Norton, 1963 (reissued 1995).


John W. Gardner, longtime member of the World Future Society's Board and more recently a member of its Council, died of cancer February 16 at his home in Palo Alto, California. He was 89 years old. Gardner was a social philosopher who worked actively for the causes he believed in, one of which was the World Future Society. One of his lifelong interests was renewal-the renewal of both organizations and individuals-and his book, Self-Renewal, is now a classic. As a tribute to Gardner, THE FUTURIST reprints a section of that book which reflects his belief that people must keep learning all their lives and rediscover and repackage themselves as they move on to new challenges. Gardner first came to public attention as president of the Carnegie Corporation, where he helped to shape the future of our American education. He served as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. (Gardner was the only Republican in the cabinet.) In 1970, he founded Common Cause, a lobby aimed at making government more responsive to citizen needs and less to special in­terests. In 1978, he chaired the organizing committee that formed the Independent Sector, a coali­tion of nonprofit organizations, foundations, and corporate philanthropy programs. His life and work were the subject of a recent PBS documentary. World Future Society President Edward Cornish offered this tribute: "Possibly the greatest job satisfaction I have had in being president of the World Future Society is having an opportunity to meet some of the wisest and noblest people to walk this earth. John Gardner was such a person. For me, as I am sure for many others, he will be remembered as a hero in his thinking and a saint in his doing."




THE FUTURIST May-June 2002 [PP52-53]