Experiential Learning in Literature
As most know, it is impossible to survive on intelligence alone. While gaining intelligence develops the process of self-growth, wisdom is the vital necessity of success and survival. In different circumstances, the knowledge obtained as street and book smarts is interpreted and valued in different ways for different individuals. The question on the importance of book smart and street smart has been greatly debated. Although both forms of knowledge are essential to one’s development in reasoning, it is often questioned which form holds a level of greater importance. In literature, the way and reason people gather knowledge helps develop an individual’s character.
In the case study A Route to Well-being: Intelligence vs. Wise Reasoning, conducted by multiple researchers, it was found that the ability to have superior reasoning abilities resulted in a greater well-being in individuals. In the research study, it was also found that “wise reasoning is associated with greater life satisfaction, less negative affect, better social relationships, less depressive rumination, more positive vs. negative words used in speech, and greater longevity” (Grossmann.) There was also a beneficial connection with socio-economic factors and even personality traits. The correlation between wisdom aka “street smarts” and intelligence aka “book smarts” proves highly important to the ability for a person to grow or develop.
“Street smarts” refers to the intelligence developed through the experiences and observations perceived by an individual. The knowledge gained through this experiential process provides one with the skills in order to assimilate and thrive in urban and everyday life. Street smarts essentially correlates to the ability to survive in such environments. Experiential learning occurs in many every day occurrences. From watching television shows to walking down the street, people are always in observance and learning. The ability to learn through experience makes developing a more personal form because it is influenced by a more personalized conceptualization unique to the development of a specific individual.
The theory of experiential learning, as defined by David Kolb, is represented by a cycle of four stages; concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. The first stage of concrete experience is defined by the encounter of a new experience or the reinterpretation of a preexisting one. After this encounter an individual is prompted to reflect on the observations made which hold importance in the understanding of the situation. Once reflected on, an individual is able to raise new ideas on the new experience or is able to question and modify the ideas of an existing concept. After concluding and learning from the experience, one can actively experiment and apply their ideas to the world around them.
In contrast, “book smarts” or academic intelligence refers to the skills possessed from knowledge acquired in formal, academic settings. This form of intelligence is generalized around information gathered in academic institutions such as Mathematics, Sciences, Literature, etc. A person considered to be book smart, typically is viewed as intelligent and can learn and retain information. The emphasis on scholarly intelligence is passed down and stressed greatly by those who are able to obtain it. There are also many presumptions that those who lack book smarts are less than and cannot succeed. However, it has been proven that the idea of street wisdom burns a brighter light.
Street Smarts vs. Book Smarts: The Figured World of Smartness in the Lives of Marginalized, Urban Youth, a study by Beth Hatt, observes the perspectives of “smartness” amongst marginalized youth in the United States. Hatt develops the idea of “smartness” being manifested in the academic identity that is greatly placed on students. In the study, it was found that the youth placed a higher value towards being street smart in their environment rather than being scholarly or “book” smart. (Hatt) Involuntarily, children in the middle- and lower-class status are already aware of their “placement” in relation to obtaining smartness in school. Already as early of the age of a preschooler, these children are represented as having a low ability to learn and be smart.
In order to remove this stigma in which Hatt presents, many people work towards advancing the mindsets of the youth. In the memoir Between the World and Me, narrator Ta-Nehisi Coates stresses to his son the importance of survival in today’s society, especially as a young African- American boy. As someone raised in the rough streets of Baltimore, Maryland, Coates’s insight and intellect on living in an environment stems greatly from his experiences and what he was able to gain from them. From walking down to the streets of his neighborhood, listening to the people’s interactions, and observing everyday life amongst his fellow black peers, Coates gained a great deal of “street smarts.” He was able to learn the unofficial “laws” of his neighborhood which helped him stay out of fights and altercations. By learning the guidelines of living in such dangerous areas, Coates was able to establish himself and his territory.
This experiential learning that he underwent provided him the skills necessary for him to survive in the world as “these laws were essential to the security of my body” (Coates.) For Coates, learning about the ways to survive in the streets of his community at the time, held a larger importance to the academic intelligence he gained in school. For him and many other individuals growing up in an environment like his, it was so imperative to know how to survive socially that it robbed him of the things he could have learned academically. Likewise, the stress of surviving in his streets also hindered him from enjoying the everyday beauty that life had to offer. For him, there was a large compromise for the survival of his body. Coate’s beliefs on learning to survive are greatly supported by Hatt’s case study. “To the youth, ‘street smarts’ are more important because they are connected to being able to maneuver through structures in their lives such as poverty, the police, street culture, and abusive ‘others’ (Hatt.) The students in Hatt’s case study define street smarts as the intelligence needed when encountering the obstacles placed in front of them.
The way people view the knowledge that can be acquired outside of an academic setting can vary in many ways. Culturally, individuals who are marginalized and are at an overall disadvantage typically key in on the knowledge gained through one’s cultural experiences. In the memoir Losing My Cool by Thomas Chatterton Williams, the reader follows the journey in which Thomas embarks on to find himself. At an early age, his sense of self is challenged, particularly in concern with his racial identity. As a mixed child it is hard for Thomas to discern between which culture or race to identify. He is ultimately told by his parents that he is labeled as a black boy. “Despite my mother’s being white, we were a black and not an interracial family. Both of my parents stressed this distinction and the result was that, growing up, race was not so complicated an issue in our household” (Williams 4.) However, it is when Williams makes the decision for himself to live a life based off of the influences of black culture that he takes on the stereotypical representations portrayed in modern day media and everyday life.
A prime example of how Thomas utilizes the idea of streets smarts is when he first goes to the barbershop. In this predominately black barbershop, Williams observes the interactions of young black boys and grown black men. It was these people who became models for who Thomas wanted to become. “I decided I wanted whatever it was that protected them” (Williams 9.) Although Thomas is able to go years living a life in black culture, he soon realizes that he would not be able to “protect” himself solely on how he perceived black boys to act. Williams had to realize that the street smarts that the people in his community had was because they relied on it for survival. Although he considered himself black, Thomas did not grow up in the same type of struggle as these black boys that he modeled after. His idea of wisdom, which although it does help protect him, is a vail and merely a double identity.
Thomas’s ability to obtain these various forms of knowledge was greatly enabled by his parents. Like that of Ta-Nahesi, Thomas’s father, Pappy, grew up in the dangerous environment of the South and was not encouraged to obtain scholarly intelligence. As a child, although his interests in books were prevalent, he struggled with the acceptance of it from his own family and peers, as he was told that he should not want to read. During this time period, the progression of intellect in black people was not a supported concept. As a result, he strived to inculcate in his children the knowledge that he himself was deprived of as a kid. It can be seen that Pappy instills in his children both street and book smarts. From providing SAT prep to teaching his children to play chess, Pappy strived to instill a sense of intelligence in his children. Pappy was able to appreciate the street smarts he picked up and give more to his children.
Another example on how person’s knowledgeable self is developed can be viewed through the character Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Set in the early 1900s, the novel focuses on the growth of Janie, a mixed-race woman in the peak of racial discord and slavery. Janie was raised by her grandmother, Nanny, a black slave who wanted the best for granddaughter. In contrast to previous literary examples, Their Eyes Were Watching God has little to no emphasis on the necessity of book smarts which was a foreign concept to blacks during this time period. During this time, blacks gained knowledge through the struggles they had to experience and from the lessons and stories passed down from generation to generation.
The idea of wisdom in presented during the time period in Their Eyes Were Watching God also focuses on the way of survival. However, for Janie as woman, she falls under a different set of survival “laws” than those that someone like Coates had to utilize. Surviving for a black woman meant knowing her place in power amongst the people around her, specifically whites followed by black men. Nanny tries to aid Janie at a young age with the wisdom that she has gained throughout her life in regards to being able to protect her granddaughter. In her eyes, in order to survive, Janie would need to be able to advance and have financially security, which is why she marries Janie off to Logan Killicks. “Tain’t Logan Killicks Ah wants you to have, baby, it’s protection” (Hurston 15.)
As presented in the case studies and literary examples, the knowledge gained through experience is vital to an individual’s success. Although being book smart is also very important in developing intellectual growth, it is street smarts which provide wisdom leading to self-development. For many people like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Thomas Chatterton Williams, street smarts is a tactic for survival and protection. Likewise, Hatt’s study analyzes the perception of “smartness” by marginalized youth shredding light on their imperative need for street smarts in order to get passed obstacles in life but to also succeed. The influences on how one interprets what is gained from experiential learning vary and are based on aspects such cultural marginalization, the search for self-identity, and even other past experiences. Time after time, life proves to continually develop and benefit from the experiences people take.