On the face of it the terms book smart and street smart simply differentiate between people who went to university and those who figured it all out on their own i.e. attended the school of hard knocks.

But I suspect the term book smart is a kind of shorthand used to describe people who think they're clever but lack a reasonable degree of common sense. It's a thinly veiled derogatory term used by the street smart folk to refer to those whose academic credentials are insufficient to compensate for a general gormlessness.

According to Is It Better To Be Book Smart Or Street Smart?, an article which possibly misses the undercurrents associated with the respective terms, people "without advanced education will likely say that they've done just fine without spending a lot of time in the classroom, while people with a lot of formal academic knowledge would say that success is largely the result of education". The piece lists people - Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates and Richard Branson - who have succeeded without a college degree. However it also states that unemployment statistics "show book smarts more than double your chances of finding a job".

Urban Dictionary says a street smart person "has a lot of common sense and knows what's going on in the world". The implication is that it's edgier and far cooler to be street smart, living on instinct and gut feelings, than a formally educated nerd.


The Free Dictionary defines it as "having the shrewd resourcefulness needed to survive in an urban environment". And WikiHow's guidelines on How to Be Street Smart focus on safely navigating a dangerous neighbourhood. It says: "You can learn how to be book smart in school, but even someone with an Ivy League education can still be street foolish." Urban Dictionary reinforces the disapproving vibe connected with book smart by defining it as "[b]eing able to succeed scholastically, and not necessarily in the real world".

To complicate matters is the term book dumb which is defined as "the opposite of book smart, the culmination of not going to school for a long time but not necessarily the opposite of street smart". An oft-used device in fiction, a "Book Dumb character will usually show excellent 'street smarts' and is often very good at problem solving ... but ... does not function well within a regimented learning system". Huckleberry Finn is said to be a classic example because he is "able to come up with elaborate plans ... but he can't even spell his own alias correctly".

Whether you classify yourself as (the much maligned) book smart or (the more desirable) street smart is probably academic as long as you're some kind of smart. And it seems that most of us are. One of my favourite statistics ever says that something like 90 per cent of us think we're of above-average intelligence. I can't decide whether it's reassuring or frightening to know that so many of us consider ourselves to be "smarter than the average bear". That depends I guess on whether it's optimism or delusion that is fuelling these beliefs.

Are you book smart or street smart? Is one better than the other - or simply different? Do you believe you're smarter than the average person?