“How Tall Are You?”

metric system

When I am asked for my height, anywhere — especially at school — I answer the question honestly. I am 1.80 meters tall.

I also live in the USA, one of only three remaining countries (the other two holdouts are Liberia and Myanmar) which have stubbornly refused to adopt the metric system. However, I am every bit as stubborn as other Americans, but, on this issue, I choose to be stubborn in the opposite direction.

It should surprise no one who knows me well that my classroom, whether I am teaching science or mathematics, is, by design, an all-metric zone. After all, like >99% of people, I have ten fingers (assuming thumbs are counted as fingers), ten toes, and almost always use the familiar base-ten number system when counting, measuring, doing arithmetic, or doing actual mathematics. (Doing arithmetic is not the same thing as doing real mathematics, any more than spelling is equivalent to writing.) Using the metric system is consistent with these facts, and using other units is not.

Admittedly, I do sometimes carry this to an extreme, but I do so to make a point. Metric units are simply better than non-metric units. Why should anyone need to memorize the fact that there are 5,280 feet in one mile? It actually embarrasses me that I have that particular conversion-factor memorized. By “extreme,” I mean that I have been known to paint the non-metric side of meter sticks black, simply to make it impossible for students in my classes to confuse inches and centimeters, and prevent them from measuring anything with the incorrect units.

To those who object that American students need to understand non-metric units, I simply point out that there are plenty of other teachers who take care of that. This is, after all, the truth.

Often, after giving my height as 1.80 meters, I am asked to give it in other units. Unless the person asking is a police officer (in, say, a traffic-stop situation), however, I simply refuse to answer with non-metric units. What do I say, instead? “I’m also 180 centimeters tall. Would you like to know my height in kilometers?”

If pressed on this subject in class — and it comes up, because we do lab exercises where the height of people must be measured — I will go exactly this far:  I am willing to tell a curious student that there are 2.54 centimeters in an inch, 12 inches in a foot, and 3.28 feet in a meter. Also, I’m willing to loan calculators to students. Beyond that, if a student of mine really wants to know my height in non-metric units, he or she simply has to solve the problem for themselves — something which has not yet happened. I do not wish to tell anyone my height in feet and inches, for I do not enjoy headaches, and uttering my height, in those units I despise, would certainly give me one. Also, obviously, you won’t find my height, expressed in non-metric units, on my blog, unless someone else leaves it here, in a comment — and I am definitely not asking anyone to do that.

I might, just for fun, at some point, determine my height in cubits. For all I know, a person’s height, measured with their own cubits, might be a near-constant. That would be an interesting thing to investigate, and my students, now that I’ve thought about the question, might find themselves investigating this very issue, next week. The variability of cubits, from one person to another, makes them at least somewhat interesting. It also makes cubits almost completely useless, which explains why they haven’t been used since biblical times, but that’s not the point. One can still learn things while investigating something which is useless, if one is sufficiently clever about it.

Feet and inches, however, are not interesting — at all. They are obsolete, just as cubits are, and they are also . . . offensive. It is not a good thing to insult one’s own brain.

About RobertLovesPi

I go by RobertLovesPi on-line, and am interested in many things. Welcome to my little slice of the Internet. The viewpoints and opinions expressed on this website are my own. They should not be confused with the views of my employer, nor any other organization, nor institution, of any kind.
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5 Responses to “How Tall Are You?”

  1. Or confuse them and put metric prefixes on British units, like saying you’re 1.12 millimiles tall! 🙂


  2. Jolene says:

    After 1/4 of a century using metric system, I still enjoy using gallon, inch, calorie, foot, etc. It is more challenge for using American measurement?


  3. I use many units. Currently i’m 12:20 shaftments high, more or less. A shaftment is six inches, i cube gives the original gallon the US one comes from. 230.4/216 = 16/15 = troy lb./ tower lb. A US gallon is 8 troy lb of weat, the six-inch cube is 8 tower pounds.

    Talking of water and weat, pi and cylinders. A US gallon is 294 cylinder inches, ie a cylinder 7 inches diameter and 6 inches high. The US bushel is close enough to 2744 cu inches. There’s an interesting series of units all the way up to a 42-inch cylinder tun, sitting inside a 42-inch cube.


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