In 1963, John W. Gardner penned a book that was both timely and prophetic. Self-Renewal is about the failure to change and the toll rigidity can have on society. Gardner says that in order to develop a thriving society, people must care, create spaces for adaptation to occur, and work to cultivate self-renewal in our citizens. This is a thought-provoking term. What does ‘self-renewal’ actually mean? Gardner shares steps for individuals, organizations, and societies to develop the capacity for self-renewal and points out the societal norms that oftentimes prevent this capacity. 

Though this book was originally written over 50 years ago, its advice is perhaps even more relevant today. In the 1960s, scholars and thinkers discussed the impact that technology would have on the world. It was to be an impact that few could have predicted. Today, technology permeates every aspect of our lives, however, we must now consider the detrimental effects that technology has had on our society and how it has impacted our capacity for self-renewal. Secondly, it wasn’t until this same time period that individuals began to question the overuse of the finite resources of our planet. Innovation is now needed to engineer society in a new direction. The concept of sustainability is directly linked with the concept of self-renewal in this way. Through societal support, critical pedagogy, and individual creativity, societies can avoid decay through a constant cycle of self-renewal. 

The first relevant point that Gardner makes is his perspective on renewal and stability. Most individuals might agree that a stable society is one that possesses order and features very little conflict. Order doesn’t necessarily mean vitality in Gardner’s eyes, however. He says that “renewal springs from the freshness and vitality of individual men and women”. From this statement, we can gather why societies decay. Societies decay when they lose their vitality because their people have lost their vitality. As Gardner points out, it is not because people have stopped trying to improve, its that the society has potentially matured to the point where it stops improving in a reinventing, innovative, and renewing way. Gardner’s view of stability in this context is different than its original definition. Societal stability is only possible when the system is in dynamic motion– with one part being born, while another one grows, and yet another dies off. The system, itself, lives on. 

His second relevant point is that of the individual as a contributor to the societal system. If the society is to be versatile, the individuals that make up the society must also be versatile. People must care, adapt, create spaces for adaptation to occur, and cultivate self-renewal in fellow citizens. This cycle of growth, decay, and renewal is also present when Gardner discusses an individual’s vitality, as well. Individuals who possess vitality; the capacity for self-renewal, are individuals who practice 5 things: 

  • Self-development – As Gardner points out, self-renewing people continue to develop their potential throughout their entire lives. It is sad, but true, that few people continue this cultivation and never explore the full range of their abilities because they stop learning. Gardner gives the example of a mine working only “for a little while and then abandoned” (p. 11). These are not just abilities in their basic sense, but the full range of “sensing, wondering, learning, understanding, loving, and aspiring” (p. 11). 
  • Self-knowledge – Individuals must know themselves and accept being able to depend on themselves. As Gardner describes, most people are “accomplished fugitives” (p. 13) from themselves.
  • Courage to fail – Self-renewing people are also people who are not afraid of failure. They look forward to trying new things and taking risks. Creativity is closely linked to courage. A correlation can be made between the argument that the educational system squashes creativity and students in college are afraid to take risks on things that are graded. Another correlation can be made between designers having a different perspective on failure. Designers utilize a beta practice, which puts their new projects in ‘beta’ mode to test out the defects. There is no failure, only room for improvement. 
  • Love – Another aspect of self-renewal is love. People are able to give and receive love. This also means that they are capable of depending on people and being depended upon. They have compassion and a sense of understanding. The aspect of love also includes being able to socialize with others, breaking us out of our “isolated self” and creating time to learn “new perspectives” (p. 16). 
  • Motivation – Not surprisingly, Gardner says that the capacity for self-renewal includes motivation, some kind of “extra drive, enthusiasm, and energy” (p. 16). Motivation does not simply mean intent, in Gardner’s mind, however. It also requires the element of action. Gardner argues on the side of individuals finding something to commit their whole hearts and minds to.

Many versatile people are innovators in Gardner’s mind. These innovators are most likely to find a solution to assist a decaying system. They do not stay stuck on a societal problem for long, because they keep adapting their concept of the solution in order to meet the ever-evolving needs of the decay. This solution-finding can take many forms. Perhaps it is “contributing a new way of doing”, but it can also be contributing a new way of thinking. Innovators possess several traits, as Gardner points out, including creativity, openness to other ideas, independence, and flexibility in being able to take different approaches to a problem. 

The third relevant point has to do with an educational system that does little to cultivate self-renewal in individuals. Gardner has unique and honest vision of what education should be. Instead of passing on knowledge, “the goal of the educational system is to shift to the individual the burden of pursuing his own education” (p. 12). While most higher education institutions like to say that they prepare lifelong learners, very few integrate this goal into the curriculum. In fact, many pieces of the structure of higher education perpetuate the “knowledge exchange” model that’s been solidified over centuries. As Gardner says, not until “we get over our conviction that education is what goes on in school buildings” (p. 12) can we begin to create a society with learning weaved into its fabric. Gardner not only understood that learning is not confined to the classroom, but that it should be regularly practiced throughout our lives. He eloquently adds, “the world is an incomparable classroom, and life is a memorable teacher for those who aren’t afraid of her” (p. 12). 

The educational system also directly feeds into one’s capacity for self-renewal. For example, it can either squash creativity or support it. It can either support motivation with high expectations or drown it with lax demands. Likewise, the educational system doesn’t always provide the tools needed for self-renewal. One of these examples comes in the form of pedagogy- both classroom and life pedagogy. Instead of telling individuals what they need to know or purely giving them what they need, we can instead teach them how to develop or find what they need on their own. Gardner’s metaphor is, “giving our young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants” (pp. 21-22). He is very critical about this point, understandably, because the inability to be resourceful can be debilitating. He says the mind is an instrument, not a storehouse. 

One particular point Gardner raised in 1953 is still a point of contention in higher education today. Should students be specialists or generalists? He points out that people can reach the heights of performance while intensely locked away in one subject area. Though, individuals also need to be generalists to see the connections between areas. Generalists, he argues, have developed the most capacity for self-renewal, because specialists can lose the adaptability needed for changing one’s approach or, more largely, one’s world. His conclusion is for individuals to develop the capacity to switch between the two when needed. 

Gardner’s fourth relevant point is about society’s responsibility to cultivate self-renewal in its citizens. For one, there are several conditions that Gardner argues society must try to create. Societies that have the capacity for self-renewal are ones that have created and maintained an environment that supports pluralism, limited governmental control, and freedom. Beyond this, however, they have nurtured a hospitable environment for creativity to occur. Gardner, again, points to innovators as the “kind of people who contribute most” (p. 27) to the societal capacity for self-renewal. If we look at society as a system, innovators are the ones who create change in the system in order for the system to adapt to challenges. These people aren’t always looked on so highly from the start. Interestingly enough, he points to the need for innovator protection and the strong tradition of freedom of thought and inquiry. Consciously or not, this book was originally written a few years after the McCarthy Era, during which thousands of artists, actors, writers, professors, veterans, and politicians were accused of committing treason and being communists. It was a time when innovation was stunted. Pluralism is a crucial component of society, as Gardner argues, which is another reason why people who express different views should not be criticized (p. 71). If the freedom of expression is at risk, so is societal plurality. 

Another aspect of cultivation has to do with industry and individuals. Many organizations have been developed to strive for growth. This does not necessarily equate with the goal to encourage self-renewal, however. When people are hired to perform specific jobs, with no opportunities for advancement, rotation, or a redefinition of duties, they can begin to feel like cogs in the wheel. If people feel like cogs in the wheel because they have lost their ability to grow, they may feel stifled. Even if an individual reaches great success in their workplace, they may not necessarily reach happiness. People who practice self-renewal are always working towards something new; they never feel that they have “arrived” (p. 98). As Gardner points out, this is why many individuals take up hobbies, so that they can have some control over their freedom and creativity. The reality is that organizational massiveness can sometimes lead to its immobility. 

This book possesses broad appeal for anyone looking to add resilience to any aspect of their life while hoping to avoid decay. John W. Gardner succeeds at laying out a basic framework for societies to cultivate self-renewal by focusing on the agents within the system. The reader finishes this short book with the motivation to change something not working in their life, workplace, or hometown. Hopefully, they are able to apply this framework to achieve innovation and creativity in this similar era of accelerating change. 

Reference

  • Gardner, J. W. (1995). Self-renewal: The individual and the innovative society. WW Norton & Company.
  • John W. Gardner. Self-renewal: The individual and the innovative society. New York, N.Y. and London, W.W. Norton & Company, 1995. Pp. 141. $14.95 paper. ISBN-10: 039331295X