Book Smarts, Street Smarts

More art than science–Freamon

I have already discussed several ways that “Lessons” explores the notion of how we learn and what we do with that knowledge, but the episode also addresses the issue of education from another perspective: the nature of intelligence. It is an old debate, one that echoes through the chambers of psychology departments and standardized testing companies. How do you measure a person’s intelligence? What skills or traits should we include in our definition of intelligence?

In my field, education, there is the concept of “multiple intelligences,” developed by Howard Gardner. He posits that people learn in a variety of ways, and that each person has their areas of strength and weakness. There are the traditional intelligences, logical-mathematical and linguistic, which serve as the basis for IQ and most standardized tests. Then there are the more unheralded intelligences like spatial, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic (I keep waiting for new categories to come out like, say, culinary intelligence or social media intelligence).

Of course, one might argue that there is no real need for this academic dissection of intelligence, especially when we already have a handy schoolyard categorization of intelligence: Street Smart versus Book Smart. It is a nice way to divide people into two camps. On the one side, we have the popular people with the busy social lives but the low GPA. On the other side, we have the nerds, the ones fighting for class valedictorian, but unable to hold a real conversation (How can you tell an extroverted engineer? When he talks to you, he looks at your shoes.)

Of course, as with any good amateur classification system, at a certain point, these distinctions begin to lose their meaning.

My favorite example of this comes from “The Fire,” an early episode of The Office. Michael Scott, who is the king of the extremely limited world of Dunder Mifflin Scranton, starts the episode by declaring himself a business guru for Ryan the Intern. Then he learns that his young protege is already in business school. Worse, Ryan is far more knowledgeable about business than the under-educated Michael. By the end of the episode, Michael’s faith in himself is restored after Ryan commits a boneheaded error (one that has nothing to do with business). In his final monologue, we get a classic example of Michael Scott doublespeak. “Ryan is book smart,” he concedes. “But I am street smart…and book smart.”

It would be great if we were all book smart and street smart like Michael (or at least naturalistically smart like Howard Gardner), but the truth is that intelligence patterns intersect in challenging ways. There are two scenes in “Lessons” that parallel each other in the way they explore the powers and the limits of “common sense” street smarts and the “uptight” book smarts.

The first scene deals with Herc and Carver preparing to take the Sergeants’ exam. Apparently, they have moved past their fantasies of dramatically cracking the Barksdale case. Now, they have shifted their intellectual weight to an attempted climb up the departmental ladder. This requires, among other things, a passing score on an exam. While the two partners typically do everything together, they approach this test in different ways. We see them sitting in the office, with Carver on the left, hunched over and intensely studying a thick book of police regulations. Herc lounges in a corner to the right, sipping on a Big Gulp.

Herc has a simple justification for his refusal to study. “Come on, this job is common sense.” It’s certainly a convenient explanation, since it saves him the trouble of reading, memorizing, and thinking. But maybe he is on to something–after all, police work is highly unpredictable and improvisatory. Cops probably learn far more on the street than they ever can from a book.

Herc puts his theory to the test by asking Carver to quiz him. Carver represents the opposite, book smart approach. He believes that enough studying will get him to the next level of the department. So he begins the question “according to Q1” before Herc cuts in “whoa, hold up, help me out here. You have to know them by the numbers?” Carver replies condescendingly, “It helps. Makes it sound more professional that way.” By-the-book Carver continues to ask a question about sexual harassment, only to have common-sense trickster Herc respond with his own option “D,” which rapidly descends into pornographic fantasy.

It seems like Herc is (justly) destined to crash and burn on a test he has done little to prepare for, but when we actually see the pair in the exam room, it starts to look like a different story. The camera pans right across the rows of future Sergeants, and we see Carver, a ball of anxiety as he mouths the questions nervously to himself and manically scribbles with his pencil. We pan back another row and see Herc, head cooly bopping to some tune in his head as he unthinkingly bubbles in his answers. Carver breaks his pencil, raises his hand and tells the proctor “my pencil lost its tip,” and Herc, the Michael Scott of the BPD, jumps in with “all the girls say so.” As the room erupts in laughter, Herc smiles. He is the triumphant champion of street smarts standing in conquest over impotent book smarts.

In one of its final scenes, “Lessons” revisits this idea in a far more serious context. Following the detail’s failed attempt to chastise Omar for killing Stinkum, Kima approaches Freamon in the surveillance center to make a confession: “I think I might have fucked something up.” She admits that when they first brought Omar in, she let it slip that they needed an eye witness on the Gant murder, leaving the door open for the stickup artist to avenge Brandon’s death by testifying to a crime he may not have actually seen. This slip probably didn’t even occur to Kima until this moment, when she realized how untrustworthy Omar was. Rather than approach her direct supervisor, Daniels, she goes to Freamon. That is because she is going not for punishment, but for advice. She needs a teacher, not a boss.

If so, she picked the right man. Freamon is warm and comforting. He listens intently, and while he doesn’t downplay or excuse Kima’s mistake (“I fucked up, didn’t I?” “Well, a little.”) he does put it into its proper context, pointing out that Omar’s story matches that of the other witness and the gun matches the bullet. Bird is almost definitely the right man, even if Omar is the wrong witness.

More importantly, Freamon uses this as an opportunity to teach the young up-and-coming detective a lesson on interrogation (a skill she never got to hone in the rip-and-run world of Narcotics). “You know,” he says “interrogation is more art than science. You got to feel your way through on instinct mostly.” Then, like a good teacher, he instructs by example. He lays out a folder with information on all of the dancers from Orlando’s club and asks Kima to choose which one they should try to flip.

She goes right for a face that is already familiar to the audience: Shardene. Freamon has obviously already come to the same conclusion, but he asks Kima to explain her rationale. Her rambling, uncertain response ranges from the logical (“she doesn’t have a record for one thing”) to the intuitive (“I like her face.”) Freamon sums up the decision with the key word: “Instinct.”

It is interesting to look at these two scenes together. In both cases, street smart approach (whether we call it “common sense” or “instinct”) appears to win out. At the same time, the men who champion this approach, calm professorial Freamon and brash frat-boy Herc, couldn’t be more different.

Maybe a resolution to this apparent contradiction lies in the other approach to intelligence: book smarts. While Herc uses the idea of common sense to rationalize his lazy approach to the exam, we have seen countless examples of his lack of common sense when it comes to the practical aspect of police work.

Freamon, on the other hand, has earned his finely-honed instinct. We see this in several details from his scene with Kima. First of all, she approaches him at nighttime, but he is still hard at work on the case, surrounded by equipment and studying the pager intercepts and wire transcripts. More importantly, he conceived the idea of attempting to flip one of Orlando’s girls in the first place, and had the technical knowledge to track down the names and records of the potential CIs.

In other words, his instinctive street smarts, are built on a solid foundation of by-the-book investigation. As with most dualities, it is not either/or, but rather both/and. The very phrase “street smarts” implies a social and emotional intelligence, the ability to navigate the gritty world of the street. On the other hand, the phrase “book smarts” implies an exclusively-theoretical knowledge, the ability to master ideas, but the inability to put them into practice. Clearly, nobody exists wholly in one camp or another. The key, as Freamon illustrates, it the ability to start with a foundation of the theoretical in order to support a hard-earned instinct.

Maybe a resolution to this apparent contradiction lies in the other approach to intelligence: book smarts. While Herc uses the idea of common sense to rationalize his lazy approach to the exam, we have seen countless examples of his lack of common sense when it comes to the practical aspect of police work.

Freamon, on the other hand, has earned his finely-honed instinct. We see this in several details from his scene with Kima. First of all, she approaches him at nighttime, but he is still hard at work on the case, surrounded by equipment and studying the pager intercepts and wire transcripts. More importantly, he conceived the idea of attempting to flip one of Orlando’s girls in the first place, and had the technical knowledge to track down the names and records of the potential CIs.

In other words, his instinctive street smarts, are built on a solid foundation of by-the-book investigation. As with most dualities, it is not either/or, but rather both/and. The very phrase “street smarts” implies a social and emotional intelligence, the ability to navigate the gritty world of the street. On the other hand, the phrase “book smarts” implies an exclusively-theoretical knowledge, the ability to master ideas, but the inability to put them into practice. Clearly, nobody exists wholly in one camp or another. The key, as Freamon illustrates, it the ability to start with a foundation of the theoretical in order to support a hard-earned instinct.

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