Our founding fathers were Penny Wise. They created the world's first decimal currency.

Sadly, we remain Pound Foolish. The rest of the world uses simple metric systems of measurement, while we Americans continue to struggle with yards, pounds, and tablespoons.

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish. Time to wise up, America!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Let Each State Decide

"It should be left up to the states." I hear this sentiment expressed often by politicians: health insurance, defining marriage, allowing abortion, determining curriculum... Given our mobile society, with people moving from state to state, I wonder how valid this notion is in this 21st century.

Weights and measures? Should each state really be able to decide? Wouldn't that create havoc in commerce and industry? Didn't our founding fathers really create the union in order to avoid such confusion between the several states?
Here is one section of the Virginia legal code, relating to agriculture:

§ 3.2-5603. Two systems of weights and measures recognized; definitions and tables of National Institute of Standards and Technology to govern.
Both the system of weights and measures in customary use in the United States and the metric system of weights and measures are recognized, and one or the other, or both, of these systems shall be used for all commercial purposes in the Commonwealth. The definitions of basic units of weight and measure, the tables of weight and measure, and weights and measures equivalents, as published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, are recognized and shall govern weighing and measuring equipment and transactions in the Commonwealth.
(Code 1950, § 3-708.2; 1962, c. 298; 1966, c. 702, § 3.1-920; 1993, c. 604; 2008, c. 860.)

Hmm. Either system may be used. What if one state led the way? All states already recognize both systems, thanks to visionaries like my grandfather.
As I ponder how to encourage conversion to the metric system, I realize just how intransigent our system is. Could one state choose to use the metric system while others stuck with "customary" units? Seems unlikely. Think of the confusion when people went to buy gas, follow speed limits, or buy and sell produce.

Well, what about school curriculum, I wondered. So I searched the Code of Virginia for Education. School prayer is well covered, as is character education, and topics related to sex and drugs. Even "competitive foods," which means food that student may purchase during school hours. But all that I could find about teaching measurement in the early grades is included in this statement:

§ 22.1-200. Subjects taught in elementary grades.
A. In the elementary grades of every public school the following subjects shall be taught: Spelling, reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, geography, health and physical education, drawing, civil government, history of the United States and history of Virginia.
B. Physical education shall include activities such as, but not limited to, cardiovascular, muscle building, or stretching exercises, as appropriate.

Arithmetic. Not even mathematics. So really, the code does not require the teaching of measurement at all. Or the wide range of topics now taught in elementary math: data analysis and probability; geometry; algebraic thinking; and measurement.

But perhaps that level of specificity is found at the level of the school district.

Change will be mighty slow in coming if we have to wait for each school district to decide.

I will have to look for models of new technologies that brought about rapid change. Cell phone access. Cable TV. Broadband internet. How did they gain approval in all 50 states, in all counties and school districts?
But how do you create demand for something that has existed for centuries?

I wish I would talk to my grandfather. He pondered these same issues deeply a century ago. I'd like to ask him about the current antipathy for the federal government, for intellectuals, for science. A century later, what approach would he recommend?

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