In past centuries, few people were taught to read and write. Most of them had little need for this type of learning as they were never expected to do more than learn a trade, and rote learning was the most valuable tool for those charged with educating them. Young people often served an apprenticeship to learn the trade they would practice their entire life, so there was no need for more advanced education. The modern world requires that the majority of people learn to read and write, but it does not necessarily lessen the value or rote learning.
Every area of study has basic fundamentals, and they must be learned or memorized before a student has the ability to learn more complex concepts. In the area of language, rote learning of the alphabet is a way to help students memorize it. When it comes to advanced mathematics, students who do not know their numbers will not be able to manipulate them usefully. Rote learning in these two areas is actually a valuable way to teach the fundamentals.