Monday, November 3, 2008

Street Smarts

I hate the term street smarts. It’s an attribute that is often presented as the polar opposite of book smarts, which is another term I despise. What book are we talking about? Text books? Cook books? The Anarchist Cookbook? Coloring books? The Bible? What about books depicting the street?

I find people classify book smarts as intelligence that can be measured by tests, teachers, and schools (i.e. academic success). It carries a derogatory connotation for some people, as someone who is book smart can be perceived as lacking in other forms of intelligence (such as lacking the ability to effectively communicate to someone ignorant).

There is not only one type of knowledge worth knowing, and there are important things applicable to daily life that can’t be learned in a classroom. However, the experience gleaned from formal education is required for many real-life applications, despite what street smart advocates claim. In fact, the work habits and the dedication required to finish school are often more important than any piece of information learned.

I digress… back to street smarts. The word street has become synonymous with urban rap culture. However, most people thought of as being from the street in fact spend most of their outside time on porches and sidewalks. Why not porch smarts or sidewalk smarts? In fact, not standing in the middle of the street is a sign of having street smarts, as one would get run over. This is actually what most people mean when they say street smarts; they mean common sense. We’ve all seen the buddy comedies; the rigid W.A.S.P. is paired with the street-wise brotha from the hood and together they must overcome the odds. The white guy always loosens up by the end of the movie (a reminder that it’s fiction), and the black guy at some point has to apply his knowledge of the street to get them out of a jam.

This kind of movie is a psychological pacifier to the American public at large. It’s supposed to make black people feel like white people now respect them for being cool while simultaneously making white people feel good about a white guy and black guy getting along (so they don’t have to go out and do so in real life). The very presence of these movies proves the vast difference that still exists. White people don’t mind being called uncool because they control everything.

In practical terms, what are street smarts? Is it being able to talk a hooker down from thirty to twenty? Is it being able to track down weed at 3am on a Tuesday? Is it knowing how to hotwire a car? These might be useful skills, but not only are they illegal, they can all be learned in schools and books. These activities are merely negotiation, networking, and electrical engineering (respectively) applied to criminal endeavors.

This is the basic problem with the term. It wouldn’t be so bothersome if street smarts weren’t applied mostly to minorities and those who don’t do well in school, as if it’s a suggestion that their skills are best applied to some sinister cause outside our mainstream, productive society. Sadly, there may never be any street inspired rebellions; they often don’t show up to the meetings on time.

I don’t think of myself as book smart or street smart; I’m more Wikipedia smart.


  1. Lol great post! I love the Wikipedia-smart reference. I'm Internet smart :)

  2. I think you’re mixing "street smart" with some sort of ghetto mentality and “book smarts” with just the classroom and school. I do not think this is the case.

    I don't associate any negativity with "book smart" or “street smart”. Some people are just more successful in the classroom or office, at a computer or in a command center/Think Tank while others are more successful in the field, working socially with others.

    Here is how I see it:

    Street Smart works in the field. They know how to deal with others, are adept at social interaction. They know the ins and outs of diplomacy. They are meticulous with dress and their language skills. They adapt to social situations, know when a situation is getting "hot", when it is appropriate to exit a situation and when it’s possible to “cool” it down. There is a psychological aspect to street smarts, with a keen eye to the social and psychological dynamics to the current situation.

    Street smarts can only be learned in the field, and one can only get a primitive understanding from learning about it "on paper".

    Book Smarts is the acquiring of data. It comes from the discipline of research and study, though books, magazines, the Internet, the classroom, anywhere where information is passed. It requires the discipline to research and study, and also one must know where to acquire the specific data they require. With enough data, an individual can become an expert in the field they are researching. Hence, a person who is a physicist, mathematician, doctor, is "book smart" in their field of work.

    IMHO, The majority of people excel in one "smart" or the other. It is rare to find an individual who is equal in both. In a group or team activity, it is advantageous to have members of both “smarts”, yet I can also see situations where these two individuals could clash. I also think many jobs focus on a specific smart, IE. Sales requires more “street smarts”, while Accounting or mathematics requires more “book smarts”.

    But if you feel that mathematics requires street smarts, I’d be willing to hear your argument!


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