Gershwin’s book details why that rather startling conclusion has credibility. It tells a frightening tale that deserves greater discussion—one that will receive further attention in the future.
Gershwin, in describing the failure of our ocean ecologies identifies an interesting concept referred to as "shifting baseline theory." The notion refers to the problem of identifying what is natural or normal when we begin to observe a situation only after it has already been altered form its natural state. For ocean life the normal or natural state existed before humans began industrial-scale harvesting of sea life (around the late 1800s). The true baseline is unobservable so we define what we now see to be the normal to strive to maintain.
This notion was popularized by Daniel Pauly who observed that baselines would tend to shift as each new generation of scientists enters the arena and gradually redefines "normal" to be consistent with their current observations. The net result of which would be (from Pauly):
The idea of shifting baselines seems an interesting way to examine other professions for possible errors of perception. A little thought leads to several interesting arenas where basic tenets may be far from "basic." Here are two examples.
There is an almost direct analogy between oceanography and economics with regard to baseline shift.
Thomas Piketty, in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, performs a trick of which Gershwin and her colleagues are incapable. He and his colleagues have cleverly extracted and analyzed economic data that extends back for a few hundred years. His long perspective reveals to us that the last few generations, when our expectations and our economic beliefs congealed into dogma, were an aberration that was caused by two world wars and a worldwide depression. The era of high economic growth rates after World War II, which has become our ‘normal," was a result of the need to rapidly rebuild the capital destroyed beginning with World War I. With the exception of that exceptional period, high growth is not consistent with historical data.
In other words, Piketty has demonstrated that our economic baseline has shifted to be consistent with an anomalous period in history, rather than to periods of normalcy. While underdeveloped countries can maintain high growth rates for periods of time, the already developed countries cannot expect to do the same.
The field of education also provides areas in which shifting baselines seem to be prominent. Josh Boldt provides us with this perspective on what he describes as Higher Education’s Shifting Baseline Syndrome.
"As these numbers (all collected by the American Association of University Professors) reveal, the ratio of tenure-track professors to non-tenure-track faculty completely flipped during that 27 year period. At the same time, the percentage of contingent faculty positions more than doubled."
"Twenty-seven years is less than the length of an academic career. That means much of the existing professoriate has watched its profession crumble away. Have you turned your head as a tenure line was replaced with a contingent position that doesn’t provide a living wage? Have you closed your eyes and held your nose while the carcass of the university faculty has decomposed outside your office?"
In other words, the old baseline indicated that if you paid an enormous amount of money for a college education there was a good chance that you would encounter teachers who were serious scholars in the subjects they taught. The new normal suggests that if you pay an enormous amount of money for a college education, you are most likely to encounter teachers whose claim to fame consists of the willingness to teach for near the minimum wage.
Colleges and universities seem to have concluded, in this shifted baseline, that teaching is not an arena where investment is profitable.
It has become popular to examine old tests given to eighth grade students to gain insight into how our current system compares in rigor with what students had to learn in generations past. Martin Peretz provides an example in a piece in the New Republic: An 1895 8th Grade Final Exam: I Couldn't Pass It. Could You?
"This is the eighth-grade final exam from 1895 in Salina , Kansas , USA .. It was taken from the original document on file at the Smokey Valley Genealogical Society and Library in Salina, and reprinted by the Salina Journal."
There was a time when eighth grade was expected to be the end of education for most people and it was expected that at that point they would have to be ready to take care of themselves in the cruel world. Now an eighth grader is just at an arbitrary point on a long journey. Could it be that we have gradually come to expect less and less from our children over the years?
The perceptive reader should have little difficulty in identifying other areas in which we have gradually allowed norms to be redefined as a matter of convenience or profit.