Give ’em a centimeter, they’ll take . . .

When Jeanne Zaino was in second grade, teachers were told to teach the metric system. The Metric Conversion Act of 1975 had made metric the preferred system of weights and measures. It’s a cautionary tale for Common Core standards, writes Zaino, a professor of political science and international studies at Iona College.

She recalls:

(a) the United States is behind the rest of the world when it comes to measuring, and this doesn’t bode well for your futures; (b) if we have any hope of reasserting ourselves on the world stage, we have to buck up, forget our outmoded system of measurement, and adopt this new system; and (c) the president said you have to learn this, so, whether we like it or not, here are your new rulers.

Her teacher tried, but students could tell she wasn’t enthusiastic about teaching second graders about centimeters and meters when they weren’t clear about inches, feet, and yards. The teacher probably didn’t know the metric system well herself.

Looking back, I am fairly certain that our collective inertia and trepidation pretty much guaranteed that the mandate was going to fail.

Lately, as I watch my own son’s elementary school teachers struggle to introduce the common-core standards, the latest mandate in our state, I have been thinking a lot about the failed attempt to introduce the metric system. I have no problem with mandates, but they work only if they are fully embraced by those on the ground, those who stand at the front of the classroom every day.

. . . without the support, understanding, and enthusiasm of teachers, these directives tend to either fail or fizzle away.

I worry about elementary teachers trying to teach “deep understanding” of math concepts they don’t really understand themselves.

The metric system was the wave of the future when I was in second grade in 1959. Soon the U.S. would stop using the old-fashioned inches, feet and yards, Miss Bletsch told us. I learned that a centimeter is sort of like an inch and a meter is very much like a yard and . . . I may have peaked too soon on the metric system.

About Joanne


  1. The problem that held back the metric system wasn’t complexity – it’s inherently simple. It was politics. Teachers in other countries had no problem teaching metric when the political leaders said, “We’re switching to the metric system.”

    Teachers in this country have no problem teaching metric when it’s necessary to the subject matter – you will learn metric if you get beyond the superficial in your study of chemistry or physics. The conversion to metric has occurred to a much greater degree than you might expect, if all you pay attention to are road signs and gas pumps. Your car may be full of gallons of gas, but odds are you need metric tools to fix it properly. Get pulled over for a DUI, and your BAC is measured in metric (.08 = 8 mg of alcohol per 100 mL of blood). Got a pill bottle handy? Are your medications measured in imperial units or in milligrams?

    In terms of relative simplicity, let’s say you want to teach nine-year-olds to determine the size of a container necessary to hold liquid. One liter of water? 1 liter = 1000 mL = 1000 cubic centimeters = 1 cubic decimeter…. 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm.

    Now you do the same for one gallon of water – to be clear, a liquid gallon, not a dry gallon, and a U.S., not an imperial, gallon. Should we time you?

    • Working in labs, I was frequently asked by foreign students why we used the old system of measurement. I would rattle off a few recipes that I had memorized (I have baking recipes that have 2c sugar and 2c flour…in metric, it would be in g, and the numbers are not the same or round, making them harder to remember). I then talk about the time that I was on vacation and didn’t have measuring utensils, but using a coffee cup as an approximate cup, was able to bake because the ratios were still right. Politicians underestimate how unwilling people are to convert their memorized family recipes.

  2. While I completely understand the broader point, it also makes you wonder why anybody thought that our biggest problem was lack of metric understanding. It’s not as if you can’t calculate things accurately with the common system. It’s also not too hard to learn the metric system once you start using it…you’ll measure your solutions in whatever the graduated cylinder is marked with (speaking from experience).

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    Back in the late ’60s, I asked my parents for the latest, coolest bike, a Peugeot ten-speed. Even though it was made in France, its wheels were “27 inches.” However, I can no longer get replacement wheels or tires for it. Several decades ago, bicycle manufacturers went over to metric sizes. That’s all bicycles, wherever made and wherever sold. The corresponding size today is “700 millimeters.” That’s 27.56 inches, just a little too big to fit on my equipment. (Don’t cry for me; I cannibalize two old bikes I got from generous relatives.)

    Because manufacturers want to be able to sell all over the world, and because the U.S. is about the only country which doesn’t use the metric system, more and more items are “going metric.”

    For example, car engines are metric. Medicine is conducted almost entirely in metric (“Give me 50 cc’s of morphine, stat!”). Lots of things you don’t see or notice are metric. Your large bottle of shampoo is probably 750 milliliters (25.4 fluid ounces), and your smaller bottle 375 mL.

    In some areas, both English and metric sizes co-exist. Portable water is almost exclusively 500 milliliters (16.9 fluid ounces). Bottled drinks come in 1, 2, and 3 liter sizes, and 500 mL bottles–but single serve soft drinks in cans or bottles are usually 16 fluid ounces (473 mL) or 20 fl. oz. (591 mL). All hard liquor and wine comes in metric sizes, but beer sticks to the traditional fluid ounces (except for some imports like Foster’s, whose big can is 25.4 fluid ounces = 500 milliliters).

    In high school, it’s useful to know a little of the metric system, partly because 99% of science is metric. But I wouldn’t bother second graders with it.

  4. The metric system first took off during the French Revolution. The goal was to eradicate all traditions and ties to civilization before the revolution. (They renamed the days and months for the same reason)

    One of the reasons we retain the traditional system is precisely because it is the traditional system, and a link to the rest of Western Civilization.

    • Foobarista says:

      One thing that’s interesting is most countries realized that the easiest way to “metricate” was to redefine their existing units metrically. If you read the history of adoption of the metric system, this is how it was done nearly everywhere. China in particular uses the traditional names for units, but they’ve been redefined in metric tems: a jin (old Chinese pound) is 500 grams, a li (old Chinese mile) is a kilometer or one thousand mi, etc.

      In some countries, the old restated units are still used, while in others, the names of the metric units have gradually taken over.

      The main barrier to universal “metrication” has been linguistic.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        There are two major barriers to “universal metrification” in the United States.

        1. There is a large “installed base” that isn’t metric. Most American houses have ceilings that are 8 feet high. Plywood comes in 4 foot by 8 foot sheets. In construction, studs are placed 16 inches apart so three of them perfectly span 4 feet. We could simply restate all those in, say, centimeters (243.84 ceilings, 243.84 by 121.92 plywood, 40.64 o.c. studs) but the numbers aren’t nearly as easy to work with.

        2. People understand and have a feel for the old measurements. They won’t change unless they are forced to.

        Back in the late 1970s, there was a plan to transition the country to Celsius temperatures. For two years, weather reports went something like this: “It will be a beautiful day today, with high temperatures in the lower 70s Fahrenheit, 21-23 degrees Celsius. Lows tonight will be about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, 11 degrees Celsius.”

        At the end of the two years, it was planned to drop the Fahrenheit. It was assumed that since people had been hearing both for two years, they now knew them both and wouldn’t be losing anything when the old temperatures were dropped.

        Alas, what people had been hearing for two years was, “It will be a beautiful day today, with high temperatures in the lower 70s Fahrenheit, blah blah blah. Lows tonight will be about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, blah blah blah.” The Celsius words didn’t add any information that they were interested in, and were ignored. No further attempt was made to switch to Celsius.

        It’s like the famous Gary Larson cartoon:

        • Jarns&Nittles says:

          Don’t forget all of our land measurements. In Texas there are land tracts that are still in labors and leagues!

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Traditional American weights and measures are certainly a link to English civilization. Though England technically went metric in the 1970s after it joined the European Common Market, much that is sold in Great Britain sports measurements in both metric and Imperial units.

      Interestingly, after the American colonies gained their independence from the British Empire, one of the first acts of the new government of the United States was to establish a non-English system of money. No more pound divided into twenty shillings, with each shilling divided into 12 pence. Now the dollar was the major unit, divided into 100 cents.

      Unlike Great Britain, no other part of Western Civilization used feet or ounces or any other of our traditional units (except for Fahrenheit degrees in some places). There was a great diversity of units between countries and within countries.

      Napoleon wiped this out when he conquered most of Europe and imposed the metric system. Even after his defeat, the metric system stayed. The “restored” governments found it convenient to have a uniform system of weights and measures. Generals knew how far they would have to march troops to get from here to there, and a liter of oats for their horses was the same across the kingdom.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    The historian Michael Ledeen once observed that other revolutions than ours had been ameliorated by the survival and/or return of some parts of the ancien regime.
    See Louis XVIII and associated nobility. The Restoration included a number of royalists, and a return to royalty.
    Loyalists running from our rev didn’t return; thus there was no amelioration.
    See difference in societies.
    One example, he said, was the simultaneous effort to metricize the US and Canada. Canada had absorbed many of our loyalists.
    Canada took to metric and the Americans ignored it until it went away.
    That said, at least the Army and Marines use metric units for distance and other linear measurements. This is to match NATO. Easy enough to learn, but you won’t find active duty people or veterans using it outside their military.
    The metric push seemed ‘way too much like “you peasants will do what we say and like it”. Control for the sake of the fun of controlling people.

    • There’s certainly a “the noble leading the stupid” aspect to the push for metrification which may, in part, explain the resistance to the metric system.

      But another part of the resistance is that it’s just not worth the bother to go metric wholesale. If you grow up using feet and furlongs the greater ease of doing calculation in the metric system doesn’t weigh all that heavily.

      Where it is worth the bother no arm-twisting’s been necessary. Areas like manufacturing. Especially manufacturing for export. Metric is common and without the need for a mandate.

  6. BadaBing says:

    I don’t like either system. I vote for the talent, the cubit and the sabbath day’s journey. If it was good enough for David and Solomon…

  7. Don Boys says:

    My goodness. Giving into this metric idea means we wouldn’t need to own two sets of tools in the garage, What lobbyist would support that!

    And we wouldn’t need to understand fractions, although I believe we’ve reached that point already.

    Oh, we might also bake using gram measures instead of cups. Think how easy it would be to scale a recipe.

    No, we just will slip further down the list of smartness in the world.

    • Don – sorry to tell you we’ve gone there already. They’ve got ready made pancakes, cookies and cakes in the baking aisle. Just add water to the mark indicated on the big plastic jug and pour into pan. I DON’T want to hear how environmentally friendly the insta bake generation is!

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Strikes me that the smarter people are the ones who can do the complicated math involved in scaling a recipe. i.e. multiply by whole numbers.
      Not-so-smart are the ones who have to have it done for them. Like the rest of the world.
      When I was in el ed, we used small red notebooks with all the measurement types on the back; avoirdupois, etc.
      The Irish Rovers have a patter song about it. Great.
      Metric is boring.

  8. The funny thing is, outside of mechanics (length, velocity, acceleration, force, etc.) we all use Metric for everything else anyway. Why? Well, for example, take electromagnetics – there are no traditional British units for any of those quantities! Volts, Ohms, Amps, Farads, Henrys, etc. – they’re all in Metric already, by default. So, Americans use more Metric on a regular basis than they think already. Mechanics is the last holdover, not the first hoop to jump through…

    • Sure, those things contain metric units. Now, do a survey and find out how many people know that an amp is a Coulomb per second. Then see if they can tell you what a Coulomb IS. Make it multiple choice:
      A) 6.02 * 10^24
      B) 6.24 * 10^18
      C) 3.00 * 10^8
      D) 8.987 * 10^9

      I’ll wager that the numbers are pretty low, it’s not widespread knowledge even though the amp is passingly familiar.

      Try this quiz… less than half of people surveyed know which is larger electron or atom. About 20% know what the dominant gas in the atmosphere is.