Books by Kuhns, Elizabeth

Kuhns, Elizabeth. The Habit. New York: Doubleday, 2003. ISBN 0-385-50588-4.
For decades I've been interested in and worried about how well-intentioned “modernisations” might interrupt the chain of transmission of information and experience between generations and damage, potentially mortally, the very institutions modernisers were attempting to adapt to changing circumstances. Perhaps my concern with this somewhat gloomy topic stems from having endured both “new math” in high school and “new chemistry” in college, in both cases having to later re-learn the subject matter in the traditional way which enables one to, you know, actually solve problems.

Now that the radicals left over from the boomer generation are teachers and professors, we're into the second or third generation of a feedback cycle in which students either never learn the history of their own cultures or are taught contempt and hatred for it. The dearth of young people in the United States and U.K. who know how to think and have the factual framework from which to reason (or are aware what they don't know and how to find it out) is such that I worry about a runaway collapse of Western civilisation there. The very fact that it's impolitic to even raise such an issue in most of academia today only highlights how dire the situation is. (In continental Europe the cultural and educational situation is nowhere near as bad, but given that the population is aging and dying out it hardly matters. I read a prediction a couple of weeks ago that, absent immigration or change in fertility, the population of Switzerland, now more than seven million, could fall to about one million before the end of this century, and much the same situation obtains elsewhere in Europe. There is no precedent in human history for this kind of population collapse unprovoked by disaster, disease, or war.)

When pondering “macro, macro” issues like this, it's often useful to identify a micro-model to serve as a canary in the mineshaft for large-scale problems ahead. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council promulgated a top to bottom modernisation of the Roman Catholic Church. In that same year, there were around 180,000 Catholic nuns in the U.S.—an all time historical high—whose lifestyle, strongly steeped in tradition, began to immediately change in many ways far beyond the clothes they wore. Increasingly, orders opted for increasing invisibility—blending into the secular community. The result: an almost immediate collapse in their numbers, which has continued to the present day (graph). Today, there are only about 70,000 left, and with a mean age of 69, their numbers are sure to erode further in the future. Now, it's impossible to separate the consequences of modernisation of tradition from those of social changes in society at large, but it gives one pause to see an institution which, as this book vividly describes, has tenaciously survived two millennia of rising and falling empires, war, plague, persecution, inquisition, famine, migration, reformation and counter-reformation, disappearing like a puff of smoke within the space of one human lifetime. It makes you wonder about how resilient other, far more recent, components of our culture may be in the face of changes which discard the experience and wisdom of the past.

A paperback edition is scheduled for publication in April 2005.

February 2005 Permalink