Useless Information

Yesterday, as I was waiting for the train, I leaned against a column at the station and recognized it to be of the Ionic style of columns. From somewhere deep within the recesses of my brain I recalled the 3 basic styles of columns: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. We had been forced to memorize these in elementary school for reasons that escape me to this day. Perhaps the curriculum was a vestigial remnant of the classical education. Rather than teach us Latin or Greek, they taught us about columns instead. Maybe thinking that a smattering of knowledge about classical architecture would help us in some way down the road.

But I don’t remember having any further instruction about columns beyond how to recognize the three main architectural styles. There was no lesson in physics, about the load-bearing properties of a cylindrical geometric figure. There was no mention of the Parthenon, or why columns were chosen or what they represented. No, the curriculum only stipulated that children were to memorize three distinct orders of columns by rote. Why? Because someone thought it was important.

For no reason in particular, this thinking about columns caused me to think about the Gettysburg Address. Four score and seven years ago. I think this was prompted by the realization that so much of my early education involved rote memorization, with next to no explanation or exploration. The purpose was to memorize, not to understand.

I believe it was during 4th grade that memorizing the Gettysburg Address was required. The state of Missouri actually required students to recite it from memory in order to pass to the next grade. Along with memorizing the Star Spangled Banner and all 50 state capitals. Those were our milestones. No child left behind may leave a lot to be desired, but how is it any worse than memorizing trivia?

Never once was the context of the Battle of Gettysburg explained to us. The significance of Lincoln’s words was completely lost on our young minds. We were merely parrots, reciting words on paper that held absolutely no meaning or significance. What did it mean that “…government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth?” We didn’t know and weren’t allowed to ask. Just shut up and memorize.

Maybe it’s because of this emphasis on memorization at a young age, but facts stick in my head. I remember trivia. I can recognize an Ionic column. I can still recite poems learned in high school English class (My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; coral is far more red than her lips red; if snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; if hairs be wires, black wires grow upon her head). I can still remember all 16 digits of my first driver’s license number, which I haven’t used in 25 years. I memorized how to count to 10 in Vietnamese. But does any of this make me smarter? Probably not. I can’t remember to pay bills on time. But I can remember a lesson plan from 1982. Go figure.

If our brains are at all similar to computer disks, then mine is probably almost filled with random files that should have been deleted ages ago. It needs to be defragmented. Reformatted.

We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground…these are the random thoughts that consume me at odd moments when I’m waiting for a train.

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