Saturday, September 24, 2011


I had mentioned that my daughter has to memorize the Gettysburg Address. What I didn't mention is that she is also memorizing the Pledge of Allegiance, Star Spangled Banner, Preamble to the Constitution, all the states and their capitals, and all the US presidents.

She has until the end of the school year and already has the three short ones down.

I thought I'd be helpful and suggest an entertaining resource to help her memorize the states and their capitals:

It's a great song from a great TV show. The only issue is that the states are not in any particular order other than what makes sense for the song. So Louisiana and Indiana are near each other, as are Alaska and Nebraska and some stretches like Hawaii is a joy and Illinois. It becomes a dealbreaker only for the project they're doing, since the rule is that they have to recite the states and capitals in alphabetical order by state, which is a totally arbitrary measure. (You heard about the patient who came home and announced to his wife the shrink's diagnosis that he had CDO? She asked what that was and he replied that it's OCD but with the letters in alphabetical order, like they're supposed to be.)

I wrote a couple years ago about a book I had read, Everything is Miscellaneous where the author David Weinberger draws attention to the fact that unnatural ordering systems can actually be detrimental. For example, what if every time the federal budget was being decided, money was allocated to states in alphabetical order? Alabama and Alaska might really like that, because they might get more with full coffers at that point. Chances are, by the time we get to lowly Wyoming, there's not much cash left to go around so every year they would get hosed.

The list of presidents to memorize is in an order that makes sense, the order they served as president, which happens to match the order the Animaniacs' presidents song is in (not to mention learning a few additional things like Ulysses S. Grant's supposed drinking problem):

It seems that there might be another order that would make more sense to list the states in, though. The order they joined the union would give them a general sense of history that could be helpful. Population might make sense, although physical size would be less prone to change. Location might work, but could be a little confusing as you try to figure out how to snake across the country, so simply filling in a blank map rather than reciting might be a useful workaround. The point is that there are state orders that are more natural and provide meaningful context so that you gain something additional with the same amount of work as memorizing in alphabetical order.

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