In African-American epistemology, a distinction is sometimes made between "street knowledge" and "book knowledge" or between knowledge derived from primary experience and knowledge derived from secondary sources. The distinction may be analogous to the distinction between direct and indirect knowledge or to the distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge.
But can’t these two kinds of knowledge be combined? Can’t they support and supplement each other? Can’t a person have both kinds of knowledge?
Does street knowledge, which may consist of various insights and adaptations necessary for survival in a hostile, dangerous, or unstable social environment, represent a primary form of knowledge? Does book knowledge, which may consist of formal education necessary for vocational, professional, or technological pursuits, represent a secondary form of knowledge? Are these two kinds of knowledge perhaps interdependent and mutually complementary? Does the distinction between them represent a false dichotomy?
Street knowledge and book knowledge may differ in the contexts or settings in which they are learned or taught. They may also differ in the nature and mode of their narrativity. It is tempting to suggest that street knowledge is more dependent on the study of oral narrative, while book knowledge is more dependent on the study of written narrative. But would this be to posit a false dichotomy between oral and written narrative, between speech and writing?
The two kinds of knowledge may require different kinds of cognitive skills or abilities. Street knowledge may depend more on an ability to “think on one’s feet,” and on a kind of intellectual adroitness or dexterity (although these abilities may to some extent be necessary to anyone who intends to develop any depth of book knowledge). Book knowledge may depend more on a kind of rigorous intellectual training and discipline, and on an ability to read or engage with written texts (although these skills may to some extent be necessary to anyone who intends to develop any depth of street knowledge).
Street knowledge may be favorably perceived as being expressed by social adeptness, savoir faire, urbanity, and worldly sophistication. It may be attributed to an individual who is seen as streetwise, shrewd, or clever. It may also be attributed to an individual who is seen as confident in her ability to cope with unusual or unforeseen situations. However, it may be unfavorably perceived as an unlettered and undisciplined form of underhandedness, deception, fraud, or intentional misrepresentation.
Book knowledge, on the other hand, may be favorably perceived as a conventional and generally accepted (although often unapplied and untested) form of knowledge. However, it may also be unfavorably perceived as a second-hand, learned-by-rote, entirely theoretical, and empirically unreliable form of knowledge.
Are there any grounds for assuming that the distinction between street knowledge and book knowledge is any more closely adhered to by African-American epistemology than the analogous distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge is adhered to by other epistemologies? Such an assumption may indeed be mistaken, since the lack of formality with which the distinction is adhered to by African-American epistemology is revealed by the colloquial nature of the terms themselves.
An important implication of the distinction between book knowledge and street knowledge, however, is that book knowledge, or the knowledge gained through formal education, may often be acquired through a kind of miseducation. For example, the knowledge gained through formal education may be taught by an educational system that is biased against racial, ethnic, and other minorities. This educational system may ignore the relevance and importance of African-American, Hispanic, Native American, and other minority group cultural experience to the project of knowledge acquisition.
There may also be senseless disparagement, by those who perceive themselves as having street knowledge, of those who are said to have only book knowledge, just as there may be senseless disparagement, by those who perceive themselves as having book knowledge, of those who are said to have only street knowledge. The two kinds of knowledge may be misconceived as kinds of knowledge assigned to individuals of particular social or cultural backgrounds.