Distinguishing Between Useful and Useless

Can anyone seriously tell me why you need to know that Frankfort is the capital of Kentucky?  Seriously?  Assuming you don’t live and vote in Kentucky, then I honestly see no need to know that.  If I moved to Kentucky (no offense, Kentuckians, but let’s hope I don’t), then I would need to find that out, just like I would need to find out all kinds of things about life in Kentucky – its major grocery store chains, its homeschool laws, its tax code.  Stuff I have zero need for now.

To me, having kids memorize the state capitals epitomizes the memorization of useless information.

I think for many people, the fact that many kids no longer have to do it epitomizes the exact opposite of my sentiment – that standards of knowledge are dropping in our school system.  The thing is, I don’t disagree with that.  The amount of knowledge (especially geography, but in other arenas as well) that kids are actually required to know seems to be decreasing.  Not that Americans have ever aced geography tests, but it does seem like our knowledge is ever more abysmal.

For me though, asking kids to memorize a set list of state capitals doesn’t even begin to address that problem.  If anything, it works against it because it’s such a small, static piece of data, one that gives people the impression that they know the most important facts when they don’t at all.  Geography is much bigger than that.  I’d much rather my kids know which cities are important, and why (their size, their political importance, their industries).  I’d rather they know the states and their relationship to one another on the map.  I’d rather they know by instinct what region and continent a country is in, what religions people practice there, what political system they have.  I’d rather they have enough context about the world and the country generally so that when the news tells us about hurricanes or wars, they know enough background geography to easily find and understand the information.

This is the problem I see when people come in and want to do away with outdated skills.  Knowing the state capitals in an internet age is an outdated skill.  On the other hand, that doesn’t mean you throw out all of geography with it because kids can “look it up online.”  Some pieces of information are things we need to have at the ready in our minds, more accessible than a computer makes it.  Obviously there are skills kids need to have, but there’s information too.  When I think about the information my kids need, I’m always trying to ask myself this question and distinguish between what’s useful and what’s useless.

Hey, look, Frankfort may be useless to know about, but it looks kinda pretty:

Photo credit: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

6 thoughts on “Distinguishing Between Useful and Useless

  1. I completely agree with you on this! I feel the same about memorizing the names of US presidents in order at a young age. Of course knowing who was president during a specific era or event can be important, but rattling off a list of them *completely out of context* doesn’t seem useful. These things remind me of the way toddlers “count” by saying the words from 1 to 20 even when they can’t count actual objects past five or so. Without linking the information to something meaningful, memorizing lists of things seems more like a party trick rather than useful knowledge.

  2. Why, look, we’ve been reading the same thread!

    It’s useful to know the capital of Kentucky so that you can tell the following joke:

    Q. How do you pronounce the capital of Kentucky – Lou-ISS-ville or Lou-EE-ville?
    A. Neither. The capital of Kentucky is Frankfort.

    Outside of the joke, I can’t really think of a good reason. I have to laugh when people say that knowing the state capitals is a good conversation-starter when meeting people from different places. Really? (But it could be worse. I’ve seen plenty of people doing “state studies” in which they try to make their kids learn the state birds and so forth.)

    When we did a unit on American geography, state capitals weren’t on my list. In addition to the states (which is why we did the study in the first place – Alex was obsessed with The Scrambled States of America), we did major U.S. cities, significant landmarks (the Gateway Arch, the Golden Gate Bridge, Mount Rushmore, etc.), major rivers, and mountain ranges. If I had to choose (and I know I don’t), I’d rather Alex know where Chicago is than Springfield IL, and I’d rather have her understand that literally half the continental U.S. drains into the Mississippi River than understand that Dover is the capital of Delaware.

    1. The state birds? Good grief. I do feel like there’s a special thing about learning the state stuff about your own state but I wouldn’t make them even memorize that, much less the state symbols of a place they’ve never even been. Next year when we do US history I’m planning to do some fun DC things like take the kids on a bizarre quest to see all the ring forts sites. But I’d much rather they work on our right to have stupid official state insects, trees, flowers and so forth instead of memorizing what they are.

  3. I don’t even think Kentucky needs a state capital.

    That big “X” in the picture may be there to help you out, as in, “You are here. At the capital of the state of Kentucky. No, it’s not Louisville. Really.”

  4. Great post. I agree and question the value in memorizing anything that isn’t used regularly. Multiplication tables, are one thing. But state birds?? If I as an adult have little reason to that information than what is the value in having kids memorize it when they can easily look it up should they ever have the need.

  5. Statebirds can stay with the birds, but I do believe that children should learn the capitals of the states and as Rivka said, also important cities. We have been learning about landmarks all over the globe too but I am holding firm on knowing where each state is and the capital thereof.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s