A foot above the rest: Standard system measures up to scrutiny

Shannon Keyser

I have had many different math and science teachers throughout the years, but nearly all of them have made the same claim: the standard system is ridiculous and America should switch to the metric system. The standard system is the units of measurement such as inches and Fahrenheit that are used in the United States, and the metric system uses measurements like centimeters and Celsius and is used in the rest of the world. Every time I hear this claim, I flinch internally. What did all these people have against the standard system? Why would we use it so much if it was completely impractical? Perhaps I was a bit over-attached to the standard system since I grew up with it, and the metric system really was easier to make calculations with…did I have an unreasonable loyalty? Though I had my doubts, as I have grown up and progressed through school, I have discovered many merits of the standard system over the metric.

The first reason is that the standard system is logical. Whenever I have said this to other people, they nearly always exclaim “what’s logical about having twelve inches in one foot?!” but that isn’t what I mean. It is easy to visualize an inch, for example, with your own eyes. An inch is about the length from the tip of your thumb or finger to your first joint. Yes, it is true that everyone’s fingers vary in length, but this is the approximate amount. I remember being shocked upon first learning this and decided to test it myself. When I held my thumb up to a ruler, it measured nearly exactly one inch. My thumb has grown since then, but it is still about one inch. Go grab a ruler and measure the tip of your thumb or finger. Even if it’s a little over or a little under, it is surprisingly consistent.

What I just explained was the entire reason the standard system was created: to show easy, realistic amounts that one could measure with parts of their own body and be roughly correct. The standard system was not meant to be exact, but to give estimations. A foot was intended to be about the length of your foot. Unfortunately, this didn’t work very well since foot size varies drastically (unlike thumbs and fingers). Eventually, people decided that one foot would be twelve inches. Twelve inches, however, is on the long side for most people’s feet. My foot is not twelve inches, but the distance from my elbow to knuckles is. A yard is about from your fingertips to your shoulder. This measurement again is not exact, but the standard system wasn’t meant to be precise.

A common argument I have heard against this is that because we have grown up in the standard system, we have a better understanding of the measurements. While this may be true to some extent, I do not think this is entirely true. If you say to a person more familiar with the metric system, “tell me how many inches long this pencil is,” they will likely be clueless. However, if you say, “tell me about how many finger joints long this pencil is,” they will likely be able to quickly figure out the approximate length.

Another reason the standard system is good is that it allows more specific measurements in some ways. In the metric system, there is not an obviously good measurement for measuring the height of humans. There are meters, but those are rather long to be specific. The next lowest measurement is decimeters, and decimeters are too small to be that practical. In this case, feet are a much better system of measuring people’s height. Another measurement like this is Fahrenheit. If you use the metric system’s Celsius, every temperature from water freezing to water boiling must fit within 100 numbers. If you use the standard system’s Fahrenheit, every temperature must fit within 180 numbers. Using Fahrenheit allows almost double the amount of whole numbers to be used before going to decimals. To be completely fair, in Fahrenheit those numbers fall between 32 degrees and 212 degrees, which seems rather random compared to 0 and 100 for Celsius. However, in everyday life, Fahrenheit allows things to be much more precise.

I am not saying that we should never use the metric system and operate solely on the standard system. There is definitely a place for the metric system. In math and science, I would much rather use the metric system because conversions are simple. If you want to convert from meters to centimeters, you only need to multiply the meters by a hundred. However, if you want to convert from feet to inches, you need to multiply by twelve. It’s much more practical to use the metric system in calculations than the standard system.

The problem is that most people do not know the way the standard system is derived and call it stupid. It isn’t stupid, it’s just that they don’t understand how the standard system was meant to be used. The standard system should not be replaced by the metric system but instead used in conjunction with each other. Each system has a purpose, and we need to use them as they were designed.