Last month, I was sitting in San Diego airport, waiting for my flight to San Diego. There were a couple girls sitting a few seats of way, talking before the flight. I was working on some homework and half-listening to their conversation. I really perked up when one of the girls declared [in reference to an absent friend] “She’s completely book smart! Not at all street smart!”
As someone who has often been called book smart over my lifetime, I started thinking about what those terms actually mean and what we’re really saying when we apply them to someone.
From the online Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary:
Book Smart: having a lot of academic knowledge learned from books and studying, but not necessarily knowing much about people and living in the real world.
Street Smart: having the knowledge and experience that is needed to deal with the difficulties and dangers of life in a big city.
In contrast, I’m also offering you a definition of each word from Urban Dictionary, as a way to see what we’re really talking about in a cultural context.
The general definition of street smart is someone who is intelligent, has good common sense, knows how to handle bad situations, and has the skills necessary to function where they live (usually the ghetto or the streets). However, the term is usually used to contrast and compare with another term known as “book smart”.
The stereotype of a street smart person is someone who is intelligent and knows how to handle important situations in the streets but is not as well-educated academically. However, the stereotype of a book smart person is someone who is upper-class and well educated but less knowledgeable when it comes to handling important situations faced in bad neighborhoods and lower-class city areas.
The more extreme and negative stereotypes are that street smart people are unintelligent and incapable of achieving a higher education, while book smart people are naive, easily manipulated, and have bad judgment in bad situations.
Both stereotypes aren’t always true and any semblance of them are only due to different lifestyles and experiences.
As I listened to these girls at the airport, I felt bad for their friend who wasn’t even there to defend herself. People never seem to by shy about calling you street smart or book smart to your face, though it’s hardly a compliment. Whenever someone tells me I’m book smart, I usually smile nervously because I’m not quite sure how to respond. Backhanded compliments are difficult to navigate. They sound nice on the surface, but underneath, there’s venom.
The thing about being called book smart or street smart is that implication that to be one thing, you can’t be the other. You can’t be both book smart and street smart. And that’s where the problem lies. When you describe someone as book smart, what you’re really saying is that they’re not savvy, they’re not smooth, they’re naive, and would blunder into bad situation after bad situation. All they’re good at is reading and learning. When you describe someone as street smart, what you’re really saying is that they’re not academically intelligent, they’re not good in school, they won’t reach the upper echelons of society because they lack the brains to do so. All they’re good at is staying alive and negotiating their way through life.
You see how these labels create a sense of extreme limitation. If might be packaged as a compliment, but it’s not. And if you’ve ever been labeled as such, you know that neither of these is truly a compliment. Rather, an insult.
What’s wrong with being called smart? Who cares if you’re book smart or street smart? It doesn’t matter, right? To me, these labels have always had a consolation prize mentality. “Oh well, you’re not book smart, but at least you’re street smart!” As if we need epithets such as these to make ourselves feel better.
For writers, readers, and all good citizens of the world, beware. Writers and readers write and read as a means to understand people better. This is the way I’ve always felt. It’s not the academia I’m interested in, not trying to be scholastically smart, but in trying to understand. In calling someone book smart, you’re really undermining the whole pursuit and thrust of their lives. If you’re book smart, you can’t possibly understand what it’s like in the real world. But that’s essentially the point of learning. Likewise, if you label someone street smart, you’re saying that the only thing they understand is the street, that they should be left in the environment they best know how to handle, the street. The label might contain the word smart, but it sure doesn’t have a positive and uplifting message.
If I were to choose from the two, I would say I’m book smart. But I’m so much more than that. Qualifying someone with a label disrespects who they are as a person and everything they can achieve in this world. Every time you label someone, you lose a little more of the essence of the human soul behind it.