Last week I just wanted to report on what I discovered through my poll on American culture and metric system adoption without mucking it up with my observations and opinions. I certainly didn’t want to express any of that prior to launching the poll. That didn’t seem sporting.
My observations thus far
Based on the things I’ve read and people I’ve spoken with regarding this subject, I get a few different reactions:
- Wow, I had no idea we’d gotten so far behind.
- A negative knee-jerk response to being asked to change something an offer of a quickly-grabbed-at reason why we shouldn’t change (heritage is the one caught most often).
- We’re the greatest country in the world and we don’t have to change.
Someone did write-in “arrogance” in the metric system poll a couple of weeks ago and I know it’s something I’ve heard directly from people myself (see number three above).
Let’s take a moment to explore that. By definition, arrogance means “having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.” Is that the boat we’ve gotten ourselves into? Certainly some folks seem to be paddling in that direction.
We’re no longer at the top of some of the good lists
Unfortunately, we’re rapidly losing any claim we might have to being “the best” in a number of critical areas as I’ve mentioned before in this blog:
- We’re nowhere near the top globally in our children’s math and science scores (U.S. Metric Adoption and Common Core Standards)
- We’re no longer viewed as an unrivaled economic superpower (U.S. Sets a Bad International Example—Metrically Speaking)
As I was writing this, I got curious about where we are in terms of patents (certainly a case could be made whether this is an appropriate measure) but I thought it would be an interesting data point.
Looking at the Wikipedia entry (the World Intellectual Property Organization page has the information spread out a lot more) in 2011 we ranked third in number of patent applications behind Japan and China (no surprise there) and second in patents granted (behind Japan).
An interesting data point listed for 2007 (the only year for which this is listed on the page) indicates “Resident filings per million population” also has us ranked third after Japan and South Korea.
For those of you who are saddened that we are no longer first in the above categories, we do apparently excel in a different area: obesity. A recent article by PBS illustrates the sorry story of our self-reported weight problems.
A world-traveling author speaks
Moving away from statistics and back to the culture issue I started with, I did manage to locate someone who has some insight on American culture. Lance Johnson has produced a book for non-U.S. folks about what they can expect upon hitting our soil. Titled What Foreigners Need to Know About America from A to Z: How to Understand Crazy American Culture, People, Government, Business, Language and More. (And, yes, the book is as comprehensive as its title.)
Johnson, who has visited 81 different countries, had to include an entire chapter on measurement which, in part, begins:
As you probably know, Americans can be stubborn about some things. The way he measure things is a good example. Nations began to adopt the metric system in the 1840s, and by 1900 most commercially advanced countries of the world had adopted it…The U.S. has never fully converted to it, even with nudging by government and business.
While the above quote relates specifically to the metric system, he points out in other sections of his book some of our other propensities:
At the opposite extreme, 80 percent of Americans emphasized the importance of personal freedom and individual rights compared to just 30 percent of Asians.
He also points out:
About half believe it is very important to know about the cultures and customs of others in order to successfully compete in a global economy, yet from my experience Americans are quite lacking in this area.
He seems to have hit that nail on the head.
Not doomed by our past
However, I don’t think we’re doomed by our past and we now have to constantly adapt to a rapidly-changing environment. Within that context, the metric system would be a fairly easy adjustment since it’s based on logic. At that point we can finally properly communicate with the rest of the world. (The Top 10 Reasons Why Now is the Right Time for the United States to Convert to the Metric System)
In coming months I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this topic as new information comes my way.