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Measuring up


So recently I had a discussion about issues facing American youth, and one of the topics that happened to come up was Britain's refusal to convert to the Euro. Voicing the views of so many American young people, I complained that Britain should have thought of this problem, like, before they joined the European Union. A friend pointed out my narrow world view on this issue by noting that the British are merely attempting to maintain their traditions and culture by clinging to their monetary system. The British don't worry about whether a pound actually equals a pound or why everyone else in the world giggles at the mention of the word "shilling." They just know that they've been paying for stuff in ha'pennies for generations and they're not about to stop now.

My friend insisted, as he condemned my supposed hypocrisy regarding British stubbornness, that Americans take a similar stance on a comparable issue -- the metric system. Most of the rest of the world has switched over to the metric system for various reasons. For one thing, the metric system is based on the number 10, which is better than being based on a random number generator, like the traditional system of inches and feet, quarts and gallons, and pounds and ounces. But the main reason people (other than Americans, obviously) like the metric system is because it makes sense.

This is very different from our current system of measurement, which, for the most part, makes very little sense. For example, a problem I encountered very early on in life was the foot. I discovered that one simply cannot expect to measure things accurately when one uses one's foot as the measuring device. At least, I can't use my personal foot. This leads to an alarming question: whose foot is it, then? This question can cause one lots of angst, especially if one is young and trying hard to learn a very difficult measurement system, a system that at its root implies that there is no God and chaos rules.

Why is our system of measurement so hard to learn? Well, unlike the metric system, our system doesn't really have a base number, such as 10. Maybe the people who came up with our current system just liked keeping things interesting. I mean, with the metric system, the answer to almost anything is 10; or if it's not 10, it's probably got a 10 lodged in it somewhere. How many millimeters are in a centimeter? Ten! How many centimeters are in a decimeter? Ten! It goes on like that for a while. However, our system is infinitely more entertaining. How many feet are in a yard? Three! How many inches are in a foot? Twelve! Not having to focus on silly concepts such as logic and math makes our system more intriguing to study.

Our measurement system may actually be the cause of America's continued slide in education compared to other countries. Our students never really get a clear understanding of measurement because there's no one who can really explain our system of measurement to them. We're all sitting around just waiting to understand why oz. is the abbreviation for ounce, since there is absolutely no "z" in ounce. Once we get past that, logarithms, derivatives, and imaginary numbers will come.

As far as the history of our system goes, it's clear to me that the guys who came up with our measurements were just screwing around and exchanging fart jokes. Meanwhile, organized science people figured out the metric system, a system that school children all over America could actually learn.

Once you begin comparing the philosophies at the root of these two systems, it's clear to see why Americans would prefer our traditional way. After all, the metric system is all about making measurement easy. But the confusion we all experience when trying to remember how many pints are in a gallon is part of what makes this country great! Our forefathers didn't have measurements just handed to them on a silver platter. No, sir. They had to memorize those facts and work to convert pounds to ounces. That's why we're tough and resilient.

I think the real reason Americans avoid the metric system, though, is actually very related to Britain's refusal to convert to the Euro. Americans like to believe that isolation from the rest of the world is still possible. Sadly, even after the events of September 11, many Americans still believe that this country can simply live in its own world and just muddle through. But the times are a-changin'. We're moving toward a global economy, an economy in which no individual country will be successful without cooperation with other countries. As we proceed toward a global economy and ultimately a global culture, we need a system of measurement that applies to everyone. And nobody else in the world is interested in pounds and quarts and miles. Why should they be?

Many proud Americans just believe that the rest of the world needs to change for our benefit. This is equivalent to the snotty American tourists who visit other countries and complain about the other languages being spoken. The rest of the world may be using the metric system, but we'll sit here in our nonsensical puddle of numbers until our kids get so far behind on the SAT that Americans as a group are restricted to working in the fast food industry.

Honestly, it's time for us to give it up. This issue may not be in the news as much as the war in Afghanistan or the president's recent encounter with a hostile snack food, but it's still an important issue, and one that could conceivably tie up Congress, which would keep them out of trouble. There's nothing special or useful or interesting about the traditional system of measurements, except that we already have a bunch of math textbooks all printed up. It's a global parking lot these days, and it's time we noticed that the meter's running.*

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