02/04/2015 10:43 am ET Updated Apr 06, 2015

From Measles to the Metric System: Progress Is Not a Communist Plot

In the mid 1970s President Carter began a valiant and necessary effort to advance the U.S. to the metric system. Forty years later, with our students already ranked below 29 other countries in math skills, our kids are struggling to understand that 12 inches equals one foot while 16 ounces equals one pint. While India and China pump out hundreds of thousands of engineers each year, parents throughout this country are fighting school boards over the teaching of science in science class. We can't even agree on a common set of standards for what our kids should learn. And now American kids are being exposed to diseases eradicated from much of the world for decades because some parents choose to take vaccination advice from a celebrity and model rather than from doctors, scientists, the CDC, the surgeon general and basically any human being with common sense of any kind.

Progress is not a communist plot, and "exceptionalism" should be about maximizing superiority, not stupidity. Yet here we are, the lone developed country in the world not using the metric system, with vaccination rates lower in parts of the U.S. than in some African countries. If more of our citizens understood the universal language of engineering, science, technology and medicine (aka the metric system), then just maybe more parents would understand that the measles vaccine couldn't possibly cause autism.

The root our ignorance is the false notion that real patriotism requires blind allegiance to the notion that everything American is better just because it is American. This lie, proselytized by the right, allows the uninformed to bathe in feeling than they are better rather than take on any burden to actually be better. It is especially laughable when you consider that Americans didn't invent the British and Avoirdupois units of measurement; rather, they were imposed on us by our former colonizers. At the same time, American scientists did invent the measles vaccine.

What is incredibly ironic is that the one place the right wing had the upper hand in ignorance was vaccinations. It was the Hollywood left that came out against vaccines. Predictably, however, as soon as President Obama urged parents to vaccinate their kids, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and Rush Limbaugh came out against mandatory vaccinations. They made vaccines a freedom-of-choice issue rather than the life-and-death issue it truly is. It was bad enough when the GOP was reflexively against evolution, climate science, common-core standards, healthy school lunches and even drinking more water, but now they'll try and win back the White House by being against vaccinations too?

From seatbelts to smoking and guns to hand washing, the right makes everything about a version of freedom that is really wanton, reckless selfishness. Real freedom isn't about doing whatever jackass thing you want regardless of the consequences to others. Real freedom starts when I and my kids don't have to live in fear of your idiotic, uninformed choices, for if we are truly a free society, the most important measure of that freedom is that our children live a life free of fear -- of being ill-educated, of being left a warming planet depleted of natural resources, of breathing carcinogenic air and toxins, of being raised in isolation and indoctrinated into false bravado, of being shot for wearing a hoody, of being bullied for being gay, of being born into a life of poverty because of systematic oppression, of not dying of preventable diseases through no fault of their own -- so that they may one day make their own choices.

Our children need to compete on a global stage full of countries brimming with the desire to see our star fall and theirs rise. In that environment, the proximate consequence of systematic ignorance is best seen in articles such as this one, in which the author attempts to celebrate the demise of the metric system by celebrating the very temperature scale that he's making fun of. That isn't a triumph of freedom; it is the consequence of ignorance, and it is in the Washington Times.

That isn't an isolated example; it's the tip of the ignorance iceberg, and it's coming to a measles-ridden school near you. True patriotism isn't a dogmatic adherence to tradition; it is an unrelenting commitment to a better tomorrow. Knowledge is the only known antidote to ignorance. It's high time we wake up to this reality and renew education as our national imperative. Rising seas and failing schools haven't jolted us out of complacency, so perhaps the resurgence of a preventable but deadly disease will. I sure hope so, because our kids' lives depend on us. Literally.