President’s Day and Shifting Baselines

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThose of us of a certain age will remember, in the sepia-toned Februaries of our youth, that there used to be two holidays this month instead of one. We had Lincoln’s Birthday, that gave us one three-day weekend, and the very next week we had Washington’s birthday, another three-day break. Two four-day weeks in the middle of the shortest month of the year, a virtual scheduling treasure for those in their formative years.

When those holidays were consolidated into “President’s Day,” we knew we’d been conned. When they told us that the relatively new holiday of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in January was being added to replace the missing February day off, we knew we were being had, but as children we soon moved on to other concerns. Now, kids going through the system have no idea that there used to be two holidays at this time of year instead of just one.

The concept of shifting baselines in an environmental sense is a bit more serious than this example, but it works the same way in our heads. The kids who were not part of the old February holiday arrangement don’t know about it, and they are excited and happy to see President’s Day roll up on the calendar. In the same way, when we see a half-dozen salmon returning to an area creek or river, we are happy that they have made it home. We wonder at their dedication and their navigational abilities and we see the beauty in their last trip up their natal stream, and we probably don’t think much about the fact that, in years gone by, thousands of salmon would have made that one unique journey. We weren’t there and we don’t have memories of what came before, so we see the spawning process as what it is now, not really feeling the loss that it represents.

Shifting baselines is an important idea, not only for what it says about the general health of the ecosystem, but also because of what it says about us. Are we aware of these declining benchmarks as we muddle through our lives or not? If we are teachers, how do we raise this issue with children, many of them who know only this temporal reality? Does it make you angry or sad? Can it be reversed? Why does it matter? The answers we get to these questions will determine what we do going forward, whether we are teachers, parents, students or politicians.

Happy President’s Day!


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