The fact that the U.S. has not adopted a metric system for quantities has two far-reaching consequences that impede learning basic math.
First is the very large number of different units that are in use and that require conversions. Length, for example, is measured in units of inches, feet, yards, miles, nautical miles and angstroms, and the conversions must be memorized to make sense of road signs, architectural drawings, etc. On the other hand, in the metric system only one fundamental unit is used for each quantity, and conversions are simple multiples of 10. We use the decimal system for money, although this was a significant departure from the British system, which had odd conversions between pounds, shillings, crowns, and pence until the 1970s. However, we have stuck with the Imperial system of units, even through a concerted push for metrication in the 1970s. Arguments used then that essentially killed the metrication effort are mostly irrelevant now, but the Imperial system remains.
The second consequence in remaining with the Imperial system is that length measurements are made in fractions of an inch. This results in the completely unnecessary need to manipulate fractions. Although most find it relatively easy to subtract a quarter from a half dollar, construction measurements, which typically use 1/16″ precision, are far more difficult. For example, try to solve the following problem in your head before working it out on paper.
11-5/16″ – 1-3/8″ = ?
This is the same as the following:
11.3125 – 1.3750 = ?
Except that tape measures that use decimals instead of fractions are rare, so the answer would need to be converted back to fractions in construction. However, it is likely that a construction problem using Archetecural Architectural Units will also include feet, resulting in a problem like:
3′ 1-5/16″ – 1′ 11-3/8″ = ?
This is solved by converting everything to one unit or by converting only as needed:
By fractions: 2′ 12-21/16″ – 1′ 11-6/16″ = 1′ 1-15/16″
By decimals: = 37.3125″ – 23.375″ = 13.9375″
So multiple conversions are needed. The same problem can be done much more easily using a metric tape measure:
947.74 mm – 593.73 mm = 354.01 mm
These types of calculations are for construction workers, who are paid to make them. But how about every day life in the kitchen? Converting a recipe for 4 to feed 7 can also involve significant math skills just on converting the various units of measure. Anyone living in any other country would be baffled by why we put up with such unnecessary complexity.
The most important consideration in why the adoption of the SI metric system is so critically important is that the Imperial system of units used in the U.S. is an enormous and unnecessary obstacle in everyone’s education. Of course our use of Imperial sizes in manufactured goods means that we cannot export these items because no other country in the world will take them, so switching to the SI metric system would be advantageous in terms of trade. There once was an argument that keeping Imperial sized products would keep manufacturing in the U.S., but most of it is already gone because other countries are happy to export to our market. Thus, there are significant economic benefits to switching to the SI metric system, but the most persuasive remains education.
An Educated Public?
The underlying premise of a democracy is that government follows the will of an educated and informed public. We will come back to ‘informed’ and just look at ‘educated’ here. It is acknowledged that education in the U.S. is poor in general, and abysmal in the poorer school districts. Although enormous sums of money are spent on education through secondary schools, the U.S. ranks very low compared to other industrial nations. There are many reasons for this, but a few warrant more scrutiny because they may not be as obvious as others:
- The stated and/or implied objective of many secondary school administrations is to try to get all students to college. Can we not teach all of the basic required skills and information in 13 years? Back when America was Great (assuming that that was before the 1970s), a high school education was considered to be adequate. It is not a more demanding curriculum since it’s still ‘reading, writing and arithmetic,’ and the educational bar seems lower than then. College cannot be essential for everyone, but that means that a high school education should be sufficient for all work that doesn’t require advanced knowledge or skills.
- Today’s educational system can be contrasted to the secondary school systems typical in the 1960s in the U.S., where most school districts had at least one vocational high school. Vocational training is now considered to be a component of community colleges, not high schools, implying that high school students are not ready for vocational training or that high school curricula are now so full that there is no time to teach vocational skills and preparedness for students who won’t go to college directly from high school. Both are false assumptions.
- Math skills are considered to be accessible only to a few ‘gifted’ nerds, and can be safely ignored by the rest of us. Part of this is due to the difficulty of using our system of fractions and the myriad units that all require odd conversion factors (see Metrication below). However, this mindset is also related to the poor image (and pay) of teachers in society, along with simple laziness.
- Metrication. The U.S. is the only nation in the world that has not adopted the metric system and that still uses fractions in measurement and construction. This fact is the equivalent of tying one hand behind the back of every student in the U.S. compared to the curricula elsewhere.
- The underlying tenant of science is that it provides facts that have been proven. Science can be contrasted to opinion, which are beliefs that cannot be proven, even though held dearly by some. It is difficult, if not impossible, to apply science to religion, and, conversely, religion cannot be applied directly to science. Although the Constitution of the U.S. explicitly requires the separation of church and state, this distinction has become blurred. There are schools in the U.S. that assert that the earth may be less than 5000 years old based on a misreading of the Christian bible, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This allows arbitrary opinions to be confused with facts, and wishful thinking to be mistaken for logic.
- The Scientific Method was once taught as a means for individuals to learn critical thinking and how to separate truth from opinion. Through the 1960s, every student could describe the method, where one devises a theory and then develops a test that could prove or disprove the theory. By 1990, instead of “trial and error” there was “guess and test.” In other words, the idea of working from a theory to a trial had shifted to starting out with a guess, one opinion being equal to another. Without understanding how to think critically, one can only be led, which is fatal poison to a democracy.
- The High Self Esteem theory of education and child rearing came into prevalence in the 1980s, and unfortunately has been with us since. Every player on the ball team gets a trophy, regardless of how well they played or even tried. Aside from the trivialization of personal effort and the concept of awards, this has had a devastating effect on learning, growth and individual motivation. No one really believes this system because it is nearly impossible to avoid the fact that everyone is not equal in everything. However, the fiction confuses reality and obfuscates one’s objective assessment of their own strengths and weaknesses. Worse yet, it leads directly to a sense of entitlement.
- Probably the most difficult obstacle to #Make America Great is the false sense of entitlement that underlies so much of American’s thinking. We hold on to prejudices, biases and similar lies so that we can feel proud and aloof, instead of basing our self worth on our personal achievements. The result is that we can see neither ourselves nor others clearly.
- Finally, acceptance of the myth of our high personal sense of esteem that is not based on fact leads directly to the conclusion that our belief must dominate all others. We have lost the ability to compromise because of our refusal to accept a world that includes others who may not see it as we do. Dysfunction is a direct consequence. Democracy can survive many adverse conditions, but not an unwillingness to compromise.
It should be noted that the real world is complex and includes an extremely wide range of cultures and belief systems. Where the willingness to compromise and find middle ground is lost, the resulting polarization only benefits those who calculatingly manipulate each side to gain a result that otherwise would not be possible. Obviously, not only can a democracy not work under these conditions, but the result is enslavement.
Donald Trump was very successful in obtaining the GOP Presidential candidacy, using his slogan, “Make America Great Again.” This is a great, albeit vapid, slogan, but with a worthy goal. It brings up two questions:
When was America Great, and what made it Great?
Can past glory be recreated? Is this a call for Reactionaries? Or can Greatness be reformulated to meet today’s need for Greatness?
Personally, I’m not much of a history buff, so both the first question and the call to arms for reactionaries doesn’t feel relevant for today and therefore doesn’t have any appeal for me.
However, what could make America Great again is an important question that should resound with any U.S., citizen. Acceptance of a declining and failing state not only feeds into the agenda of those who are profiting from America’s decline, but also inevitably results in a loss of hope for the future.
So what can we do to #Make America Great Again? First, it is essential to understand why America isn’t “Great.” A list of the obvious top reasons should include at least the following:
- Education. What are some of the correctable reasons for the very poor performance of our educational system relative to other industrialized nations?
- Government. It is a nearly unanimous opinion that our democratic system has been overrun by money and is highly dysfunctional. The primary campaigns of both Trump and Sanders demonstrate that a large percentage of the population want change, but the details are very unclear. A democracy is a form of government where everyone can vote their vested interest, but in its degenerated state, elected representatives mostly follow the sources of money they need to get re-elected.
- Economy. Every dollar spent by the government is taken from a tax or fee. If America is Great, then its citizens should be happy. This means that the vast majority can afford the taxes and still have a satisfactory life. Thsi is difficult when out of work or when working a lot but still not making ends meet. If America was great, it was probably due to manufacturing and other businesses that provided workers with a sufficient income to foster a strong middle class. A return to manufacturing as a source for greatness is unlikely, so what is next?
- Medical Coverage. Can America be Great if a substantial portion of the population, including a large portion of those who are working, cannot obtain adequate health coverage? Does the for-profit healthcare provider model work adequately, even as modified by Obamacare?
- Foreign Affairs. The U.S. has by far, the world’s largest military, and uses it daily. Is being the World’s police and reaction force what makes America Great? Does the Foreign Aid budget make America Great? Currently this does not seem to be the case, but it may have been previously – why?
- Military. Is the very large budget for the military what makes America Great? The military comprises 1/6 to 1/5 of the government’s expenditures. Is this sustainable in the changing economy? What are the alternatives?
- Religion. Was past ‘Greatness’ based on religion or religious freedom or no government-sanctioned religion?
These are some of the topics that should be addressed if we are serious about #Making America Great. Dialogs about many of these topics very often degenerate into slogans, vague assertions, camera sound-bites and dogma. However, change does not occur by itself. To #Make America Great (again), it is necessary to rationally evaluate where America is now. Is this even possible in today’s partisan, opinionated America?