Sunday, August 31, 2014

After 40 Years With Metric. It Is Still Confusing!

The metric system is supposed to be the legal unit of measure in Canada. The federal government began implementing the system back in the early 1970's.

The concept of a base 10 system seems relatively simple. However, the problem is in the conversion.

Here in Canada, my generation (baby boomers) and those before me, grew up using the Imperial system. We were used to imperial. We knew how to do things and how to shop for things in imperial. We weighed things in pounds and ounces. We measured height/distance in inches, feet, yards and miles. Even our rural roads are generally laid out in miles. We measured land in acres. We bought liquids in ounces, pints, quarts and gallons. Our recipes were in teaspoons, tablespoons and cups. Our temperatures were in Fahrenheit.

Over the ensuing years, ALL Canadians were expected to learn and adapt to grams, kilos, centimeters, meters, kilometers, hectares, millilitres, litres and Celsius.

I was in junior high at the time, and like many of my peers, found the system somewhat confusing. Even though we were taught how to convert to metric, our instincts were more attuned to what we'd already learned of the imperial system.

Adapting to metric was even harder to comprehend for most of our parents and grandparents!

The general public was provided with conversion charts and instructions on how to convert the various measures. Note, that this was in the days long before the internet or mini calculators. We did the conversion in our heads or with pencil and paper!

It wasn't an easy sell. Despite the best efforts of the government and those who supported the switch, it has been an expensive and tedious process to get us to think metric.

Thankfully the system was introduced over several years - but it hasn't made it any easier to adjust for those of us who grew up with imperial.

Today - just over 40 years after it was first introduced - metric is still a bit of a mixed bag in Canada. Some items are sold strictly in metric while many others are advertized and labeled in both imperial and metric. Most people have generally gotten used to buying liquids (including gasoline) in litres, but adjusting from pounds to kilograms, teaspoons to millilitres and so on is a bit harder.

For instance. an inch is 2.54cm. There are 36 inches is a yard but the metric equivalent of a yard is a meter which is actually 39.37 inches. Three inches can make a lot of difference! Luckily, most rulers and measuring tapes are still sold with both metric and imperial!
Even so, measurements can be quite off if you aren't really careful what/how you are measuring.

This is especially true when it comes to food - both in selling and in preparation. Some products are labeled in both systems. Dairy, deli and bulk foods are labeled primarily in metric with only some carrying the imperial unit price in smaller print. Meat is advertized in pounds with metric in small print, often labeled in both at the meat counter but sold by the kilo. Produce is advertized and generally labeled in pounds but sold in kilos. Canned/packaged products are frequently labeled in both systems.

Temperatures are reported in Celsius, but many of us still think in Fahrenheit especially when it comes to oven temperatures. Confusion abounds if you post temperatures in Celsius on social media sites. The Fahrenheit people in the US and other countries think that 25C sounds downright cold since many think that means 25F which would be below freezing. WRONG! 25C is actually a comfy 77F! The formulas for temp conversion are as follows:
F to C Deduct 32, then multiply by 5, then divide by 9
C to F Multiply by 9, then divide by 5, then add 32

Confused? Join the club! Yes, there are all kinds of conversion charts and apps available for anyone with an internet connection but we should know how to do at least a little bit of it in our heads or with a pencil and paper shouldn't we?

So, what about those who started school after the conversion started as well as the youth of today and of the future? I asked some acquaintances with current connections to schools (teachers and students) if Imperial is even being taught. To my surprise, only metric is being taught in most Canadian schools. Some curriculum's offer a very short section within science or math programs on conversions but many aren't even bothering to teach students how to convert to either system.

I also learned that some schools aren't even teaching home economics anymore. Among those that are, the students are maybe getting an 80 minute class once per week/cycle for a semester! That's not even enough time to get a basic grasp of cooking let alone preparing recipes! Unless a student has been taught imperial measures in the home or elsewhere, they have no clue as to what a cup, tablespoon or teaspoon even are! (FYI, in the 1970's, the home economics classes in my school were a half day/6 day cycle - half the year in food and the other half in sewing.)

Given our close economic ties and physical proximity to the USA - which has not switched to metric - the Imperial measures are still a dominant force in our society and especially online. So those of us who haven't adapted can still find pretty much anything we need with a bit of effort.

Back when I was in school, I was quite good in math and actually understood metric fairly well - I just didn't like the conversion part.  Almost 40 years later, I've forgotten most of what I knew. I can still do some rough calculations in conversion while grocery shopping but I often have to stop and think about it or grab a calculator.

As for the students that are only being taught metric? Yes, as I stated above, there are umpteen "apps for that" but being able to do at least some basic math and conversion without the use of apps would go a long way in educating and preparing younger generations for the future. Without that, I fear we are raising generations of young people who will be woefully ill prepared for the realities of living and working in the real world. Not to mention that their lack of cooking knowledge/skills is leaving them at the mercy of the convenience/prepackaged world of food.

In the post on September 14. I'll share some thoughts on cooking in imperial versus metric.


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