Metric3

Let’s see:  1 inch equals 2.54 centimeters, so 1 centimeter equals…hmm…

Whatever happened to that great push to fully implement the metric system of measurement in the United States?  I was only an elementary school student in the Seventies, yet I was not immune to the controversy surrounding some contemporary educational issues.  There was the backlash against New Math, for example, as parents questioned the relevance of learning abstract mathematical concepts to the computational competency of their children.  The use of phonics instruction still annoyed those who remembered becoming perfectly good readers without repeatedly breaking down words into their phonetic components.  I was dimly aware of these debates, but the hot issue that really got my attention was the impending rise and dominance of the metric system.

As a child, this major societal shift was presented to me as an inevitability, and I perceived a menacing future.  There would be no use resisting, it was implied.  It wouldn’t matter if you expressed a preference for the customary system or voiced an objection.  Well, you better learn to like it, because it’s coming!  By the time we were adults, we could expect grocery store shelves filled with canned goods packaged by the gram, gas stations selling liters of gas, and car speedometers indicating kilometers per hour.  I was apprehensive.  Just the sight of the fraction 5/9 in the Fahrenheit to Celsius conversion formula made me uneasy.

Unfortunately, performing cumbersome system conversions seemed to be the extent of the educational effort to make the metric system relevant to our everyday lives.  No wonder so many of us developed a prejudice against a measurement method that is preferred by nearly everyone else in the world.  Working within the metric system seemed simple enough, but outside of using tangible quantities in science classes, the process was more like an abstract game.  It had no meaning outside of school.  The only way to connect it to our lives was by comparing alien metric units to the customary standards with which we were familiar, and that required the dreaded conversions.  Who but the mathematically stoutest among us actually enjoyed finding the metric equivalents for distance, capacity and temperature when the fictional Johnny rode his bike seven miles to the grocery to buy a 12 fluid-ounce soda on a 90-degree summer afternoon?  Who cared?  It had no relevance to our lives other than the vague threat that some day soon, everybody would have to know this.

But a funny thing happened on the way to our national metric conversion.  It didn’t happen.  Decades after change seemed certain, the use of customary measurement units has not declined.  Our kitchen drawers still rattle with tablespoons and cups, and we’re still relying on absurd linear increments like 3/16ths of an inch.  You won’t see gas sold by the liter in this part of North America.  In fact, it is difficult to uncover much acknowledgement of the metric system at all outside of the metric tools we use to service our foreign cars.  Only in the beverage aisles of supermarkets and convenience stores can one find the sole example of metric packaging that is truly ubiquitous in 2010:  the two-liter soda bottle.  It is, I would argue, the lone success story in our nation’s attempt to embrace the metric system, and its popularity suggests what is necessary for further progress.

The wonderful thing about the two-liter bottle is that it holds an almost universally popular commodity in a precise amount of metric capacity.  It would be even better if one-liter bottles were as plentiful, but it is not difficult for most people to visualize how much liquid there would be in half of a two-liter.  Thus, thanks not to our educational system but rather to our enterprising soda marketers, all of America has a meaningful standard of reference when discussing liters.  Just how successful is it?  Try this experiment:  ask everyone you know to tell you exactly how many fluid ounces are in two liters.  Many will not know, and this is because we don’t think of the liquid in those bottles that way.  We buy it by the liter.  If only we were to stop selling smaller quantities by the fluid ounce and instead buy our beverages by nicely rounded numbers of milliliters, our country would develop a good sense of that metric unit, too.

I’ve encountered skepticism from today’s elementary schoolchildren regarding the relative difficulty of using the metric system, and I’ve always sought to ease their math anxiety by pointing out that they are already comfortable with metric intervals.  After all, what kid doesn’t know a little about money?  It’s easy to add things using base ten, whether it involves the hundred pennies that make up a dollar or the hundred centimeters in each meter.  Multiples of ten are sensible intervals for measurement systems.  But what if our monetary system were organized like our units of liquid capacity, in which eight fluid ounces make a cup, two cups make a pint, two pints make a quart, and four quarts make a gallon?  Better hope your cash register doesn’t fail.

Obvious as the advantages of metric computation are, our country persists in using the quirky measurement systems we inherited.  Imagine the conversation if anyone were to propose the use our linear measurement units to someone who had never heard of them:

“This is the foot.  It’s the standard unit of linear measurement.”

“I see.  It’s pretty big.  How do you measure smaller increments?”

“Well, we break it up into twelve units called inches.”

“Uh-huh.  And what if you need to go smaller than that?”

“Well, then we break the inch up into sixteenths.”

“Really.  Well, say you need something bigger than one foot.  Then what?”

“You can put three of them together to make a yard.”

“Well, that’s not much bigger, is it?  What if you need to measure a very large distance, like for traveling?”

“Oh, well then you would use the mile.”

“The mile?  How many feet are in one of those?”

“Five thousand, two hundred eighty.”

“Seriously?”

I can only speculate that the United States passed its optimum window of opportunity for metric conversion long ago, and now the longer we wait, the more taxing the change will be.  Too many elements of our infrastructure, manufacturing, and construction are produced using customary units.  Switching to the metric system in a meaningful way would require not just changes of heart and mind but an enormous expense as well.  It will be difficult to persuade the general public that easier computation is worth all that effort.  Perhaps the rather embarrassing fact that the only metric holdouts left are Burma, Liberia, and the United States will wound our national pride sufficiently.

Uphill as the battle may be, it is an organized fight, and the nearly century-old U.S. Metric Association continues to advocate for the “metrication” of our country.  Their website includes a list of suggestions for promoting the metric system, from buying metric goods whenever possible to supporting metric legislation.  My favorite USMA idea is this one:

When engaging in trade, state that you prefer your product or service in the metric system because it is the legally preferred system of measurement for trade in the U.S., according to the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 (as amended 1988).

I would love to witness a staunch metric advocate employing this tactic at the local Wal-Mart, asking to speak with the customer service manager and ready to whip out a dog-eared copy of the Metric Conversion Act of 1975.

Maybe one day the metric system really will be as common to our everyday lives as two-liter soda bottles.  If so, there will be more work to accomplish, starting with the adoption of metric time.  I mean:  sixty seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour, and twenty-four hours in a day?  You gotta be kidding me.