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## The metric system and USAJuly 2004 While other countries have eagerly copied many American ways, Americans have often been less willing to learn from abroad. A classic case of refusing to learn for our own good is the matter of the metric system of measurement, which is the standard throughout the world, except for a few holdout nations, such as the U.S. In the 1980s the U.S. Congress made a lame attempt at converting the country to the metric system, and the Reagan administration even had a "metrification council" that was charged with achieving this miracle. But in the end, industry lobbying won out – the change would cost money and lose profits, they said – and the nation and sanity lost the battle. The council died a quiet death, and little has been heard of "metrification" since.
The practical advantages of the metric system (also known as "ISU" – or "SI" – for "international system of units") are so well known that I won't beat that dead horse. But let's look at the Both teachers start out, "Good morning, students! Today we're going to learn about lengths, or distances." But here, the two students hear rather different things:
(It's the next week in class. Ingrid has the simple metric measures down cold. Sue is still struggling to memorize last week's seemingly unrelated numbers.)
Ingrid learns what a square meter is: A square, one meter – 100 cm – on a side, or 10,000 cm
Sue learns that a square yard is one yard – 36 inches – on a side, or 1,296 in
"And today, children, we'll learn about volumes, or three-dimensional space." The Norwegian teacher continues, "This will be very easy because you already know almost everything you need to know to understand it." (I'm not sure how the American teacher introduces this dreaded subject.) Both teachers explain that we use two forms of volume measurement, one of them usually reserved for liquid measures. Their task is now to explain the connection between the two.
Ingrid learns how we calculate and convert cubic meters, decimeters, centimeters, millimeters, etc. Very straightforward, of course, since it's just a matter of adding zeros. But how about the liquid measures? Well, here's a "liter" bottle. Guess what? It holds the same as a cube with 10 cm on each side. In other words, it's a cubic decimeter, or dm
But Sue... She has absolutely the same talent as Ingrid, the same ability to learn. But our American society seems to conspire against her. She's expected to learn something like this: Our usual dry measure is the cubic foot, which contains 1,728 cubic inches. There are 27 cubic feet, or 46,656 cubic inches, in a cubic yard. Tough enough, but now let's learn the liquid measures: Here we use the good old "gallon". The gallon is, for some reason, 231 cubic inches, so we can pretty much forget about making that conversion. But the gallon system has its own logic: We divide the gallon into four "quarts" which are again divided into two "pints" which are divided into two "cups". Thus there are 16 cups to a gallon. Of course there's no reasonable relation between a cup and a cubic inch. (For the curious, it's 14.4375 in
Enough said, really, but let's add, to wrap up, that the related measure of weight (or mass) presents exactly the same picture. The American child is presented with the same maze of nearly unrelated units: The pound, the ounce (a different ounce!), the ton. Children in most of the rest of the world enjoy the beauty of the metric system's milligrams, grams and kilograms. The metric system even connects with the most essential compound for human life: Water. One liter of pure water weighs one kilogram. It also connects with the Celsius temperature scale, where water freezes at zero degrees and boils at a hundred. And with the definitions of heat (measured as the heat energy needed to raise one gram of water one degree C), force, power, energy, pressure, density, flow, ... with meteorology, biology, physics... in fact, with everything having to do with science and with technical communication around the world. Why do we do this to American children? Why do we make them waste their valuable school time on the long outmoded English system, this diabolical mish-mash of irrational and unconvertible units, while children all around the world are learning a simple and logical system which is not only easier to use later in life, but saves their study time for useful learning? Why do we befuddle our children's minds with such trash, which seems designed to make them rebel against learning as an arcane and unpleasant chore. Why make them spend ten times as much time on learning a system which is not a tenth as good? We handicap our kids from the start with this byzantine system, and it's way past time to abandon it and join the rest of the world. The English system of measurement had its use in its day, but it is now a legiron on American society. The irony is that the industrial leaders who have campaigned with such vigor to oppose introduction of the metric system are among those who stand to gain the most from the improved education and communication and the competitive enhancement that would come from tossing off the chains of the English system and placing ourselves on an equal footing with other modern societies. |

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