State Capitals and Other Trivia

white concrete building
Photo by Michael Judkins on

What is the value of memorizing state capitals? I had to do this when I was in grade school. And yet I can’t recall a single instance–beyond trivia–when I needed to pull that information from my brain. I can see the point of knowing the capital of one’s own state. But all fifty? Decades later, I have the fifty state capitals available from memory whenever one is required, but I can’t recall if I already shampooed my hair while in the shower. I’m not proud of having memorized the state capitals. Indeed, I am amused when a state capital trivia question comes up and someone answers almost instantly. I pretend not to know.

We memorized the U.S. Presidents, too, in order of their terms in office. We not only had to memorize the names, but the numbers. For some reason, teachers always wanted to know who the 16th president was. When has it ever been important to know that Lincoln was our 16th President? It seems to me there is far more important information about Lincoln that students should be learning. It could have been worse. We could have had to memorize the vice presidents. There is an old story about a woman who lost her two sons in a war. One went off to battle, the other became vice president. Neither were ever heard from again.

State capitals and U.S. Presidents are just two examples of facts that have been relegated to the land of trivia. Given how useless memorizing the state capitals has been for me, I’d rather give some back and use the freed-up memory space for more practical matters.

I have the increasingly cyncial suspicion that this kind of trivia has become a substitute for learning, not the least because it is something that is very easy to measure. I find it interesting that I never had to memorize the periodic table of elements, something that would have been far more useful than the state capitals. Why is that?

More practical than memorizing state capitals is learning how to read a map. Someone who can read a map, can readily identify capitals should the need arise. Plus, there is a pleasure to dead-reckoning navigation that turn-by-turn GPS navigation lacks. (Back when I was learning how to fly, GPSs were just coming into use. My flight instructor wouldn’t allow me to use one, insisting I navigate by chart. “Charts,” he said, “never run out of battery life.”)

Memorizing multiplication tables is also a more powerful use of brain power than memorizing state capitals or the order of presidents. I was astonished when I discovered that my kids’ school didn’t require students to memorize multiplication tables. It had a notable impact. They struggled with math involving multiplication and division until Kelly took it upon herself to help them memorize the multiplication tables.

If students are going to learn about U.S. Presidents, it seems to me that biographies of the presidents are a much better tool than memorization. As I have written before, biographies are a great tool for learning, far beyond the subject of the book alone. Reading biographies of various U.S. presidents provides a continuity of history that doesn’t come from memorizing a list.

State capitals make for good trivia questions, but that is about the only value memorizing them offers. Knowing that the state capital of New York is Albany without knowing why the state capital is Albany (because that was the part of the state where the wealthiest citizens had their country estates) misses huge opportunities to teach something useful, rather than memorize something trivial.

Written on March 10, 2022.

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    1. Michael, what I found interesting about that video is their use of the word “capitol” as opposed to “capital.” My understanding is that the former is only used to describe the buildings. Capital cities use “capital.” The category in the video therefore, implies knowing the name of all fifty states and their capitol buildings.

  1. An interesting thought – what is the usefulness of this knowledge, especially in an era when we can look them up on the computer in our pocket. As I was reading the post, I was thinking to myself that only rote memorization that is really necessary is multiplication tables…and then you immediately wrote that your kids didn’t learn that, which is surprising to me.

    This dovetails a bit into a discussion I was listening to on a podcast about what they were the calling the “professionalization of Jeopardy champions.” Where people who have long runs on the show now do so because they study children’s books for common facts. Definitely showing that memorizing facts is not the same as knowledge.


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