07/02/2012 01:37 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2012

Purpose: What's Missing in Education

Most people in college and high school can't read. Can they read a book? Yeah, most of them... But they lack another essential piece of human development. Most young people are socially illiterate. They are unable to read the world around them, see themselves in relation to that world, and speak back to that world in a way that is unique and integrated.

Health care is the headline of the day after the Supreme Court's ruling on Obamacare last week. Undoubtedly majorly important, but there have been two recent developments on the education front that should not be overlooked: The Obama Administration halting the deportation of 800,000 undocumented people brought to the U.S. as children, and its granting of waivers for the No Child Left behind education law to five states. HUGE.

With such major change happening in this country there has never been more of a need for our young people to be cultivated holistically in respect to their education. For decades we've tackled disparities in literacy; a person's ability to read and write. Our current frontier is social literacy; a person's ability to read the world.

Even the most academically bright students I encounter often shrivel up when I ask them a question that puts them in relation to whatever the subject matter they've mastered. More tragic than that is the low level of importance they put on relating themselves to what they're studying. When they all come filing into class I eavesdrop on their conversations, mostly pointless banter that makes me want to yell, "Get a life!"

Pause... Okay maybe that's a little mean. Of course I see great brilliance and potential in my students. It's just that there's this separation between the depth of what they're studying and the depth of their growth as a person that is appalling. They are being robbed and robbing themselves of the truest essence of being informed: Purpose.

Trang was a straight-A sophomore in a philosophy residency I taught at a well-known university. Her final essay related the life of a caterpillar and it's struggle through transformation into a butterfly, to what she saw as America's reluctant yet destined outcome of immigration reform. She paralleled stages in American history with stages of the development of a caterpillar. It was really good! Her presentation impressed the entire class, including me. However, her A came crashing to a C when I asked her how her life might relate to that of a caterpillar striving to be a butterfly. High from the applause she had just received from me and the class, she shrugged and scoffed at me, "I don't know?" I pushed her further, asking, "As a child of immigrant parents, what are some of the moments in the historical context you just provided us that you feel directly impact you today?" She hadn't even considered it and couldn't answer.

She's just one example of hundreds of students I've experienced who, by college, have nearly given up on original thought. It's tragic the way our education system can take even a child of immigrants with a breadth of life experience ranging from the physical struggle to make it to America, the dynamic complexities of arriving in and learning an alien world, to the beautiful inherent culture they are naturally infused with and turn them into drones that dispense information, but don't evolve on a human level. Their education isn't something they are turning back inward, rather a hazing to prepare them for the job market. Ironically their Mac laptop, Facebook page, and Google engine are all created by individuals who walked out of the academy and put a dent in the universe, as Steve Jobs put it.

I work in education and in the arts, which is an interesting intersection to stand in professionally. I'm not a teacher in the most conventional sense. I never went to college (other than a semester and a half of community college), I have no degree, and I often wear Chuck Taylor's to compliment my blazer and tie when I go to work. Nonetheless, I've been teaching for 10 years, working in every form of educational environment including private schools, public schools, state universities, private colleges, Ivy League universities, juvenile halls and prisons.

I was first invited to speak in classrooms as a poet and street-theater artist in my teens. Teachers would marvel afterward at how engaged the students were during my presentation, while at the same time underhandedly putting down the kids (and themselves), by whispering through a smile that they "couldn't get them to stay still for two minutes!"

California schools and organizations at the time, in early 2000, were coming up with creative ways to bring people like me on as part of their staff to make subjects like English and Science more provocative. The gigs required me to take syllabus that well-trained and educated teachers had developed and find points to infuse things that would make the course work more palatable for those they were labeling as "hard to reach", "at risk", or "challenged" students -- all code for black and brown students they were afraid of and didn't know how to teach. Students like Chad.

Chad isn't academically smart the way Trang, the college student was. He's in the 11th grade but reads at a 5th grade level, at best. He also enters my class with pointless banter. While Trang and her friends rattle on about Facebook, reality TV, and "Oh my gosh I love your hair", Chad and his boys slide into my class, waddling like penguins (a side- effect from having their pants hang below their butts), as they spill on about the latest Jordans, girls they want to have sex with, and "Aye blood, I'll whoop yo' ass."

Chad isn't book smart, but is street smart. He hasn't survived Finals Week at a university but he's survived Killing Summer in San Francisco's Hunters Point neighborhood 16 years in a row. He and Trang have entirely different realities, but are united in my mind with the exact same affliction: Social illiteracy. Trang is in college because her parents told her that's where she belongs. She would have let her family down and been ashamed if she hadn't been accepted into college. Now that she's there she can't articulate why she's there and has no real direction that isn't fueled by fear or a desire to be accepted.

Chad is in the same boat on a different ocean. The adults around him told him that he belonged in the street game and he did what it took to get there. He would've been ashamed to not be accepted, but now that he's "in" he has no direction or purpose, just there. Society applauds the college student and gives up on Chad -- but in most ways both are headed down the same puzzled path of artificial activity. The institution will make a fortune off of Trang and her friends through student loans, credit card debt, and taxes. The fortune Chad and his friends will provide will be likely from prison incarceration and the bulldozing of his neighborhood to build lofts so Trang types can move in after they graduate and get married!

It's imperative that every inch of a person's education is connected back to them as an individual. That we see ourselves in the information we are learning. The career paths we choose should be organized expressions of our spiritual self. It is impossible to reach this point if our education is solely based on industry with no deliberate exploration of yourself in relation to the world around you.

Consider the story of Mohammad Abdollahi. Mohammad is a 24-year-old undocumented student that grew up in Ann Arbor, MI, but was born in Iran. This past May he joined fellow student protestors and participated in a sit-in at John McCain's Arizona office in support of the Dream Act. He was arrested and issued an ICE warrant. Like any other brave protestor, Mohammad risked jail time, his undocumented status adding a threat of deportation to his arrest -- especially in the hot bed state of Arizona. The thing is, the kid is openly gay -- a death sentence if he is deported back to Iran, where executions by hanging are common for homosexuality.

Mohammad is socially literate. He understands himself in relation to his education, and the world around him. He took the ultimate risk to advocate not only for his own right to an education, but for all others as well.

We teach teenage children sex-ed, but we do not give them a course on relationships. So naturally sex is had, babies are conceived, but families are broken and non-sustainable. A trade school teaches a plumber how to lay pipes and unclog drains. Of course the student must also learn the source of where the water that flows through those pipes comes from for his education to be complete. If we in academia are the driving source for young people to apply everything that they learn - we are failing! Their application of the knowledge they gain is what impacts the world.

As cliché as it may sound, empowering our children to explore themselves is the key to turning this thing around. So, I guess it's not "get a life" as much as "BE a life."

The names of individuals discussed have been changed in the interest of privacy.

Ise Lyfe is an artist and educator, famed poet of the HBO Def Poetry series, and Executive Director of Lyfe Productives -- a social marketing and education firm focused on product development. His first book, Pistols & Prayers, is a best-seller and mandatory reader at universities across the U.S. His forthcoming book, Get Off the Fence, will be released in February 2013 and distributed through Partners West.