The Imaginative Acquisition of Knowledge

Winners announced for the 2014-15 President's Writing Prize

By Brigid Hamilton, '06  |  Photos by Brigid Hamilton, '06

When students win the President’s Writing Prize, they receive not only the honor, but also a $500 cash prize. And, because it’s the president’s prize, they have the chance to receive the award directly from Rev. Brian F. Linnane, S.J., Loyola’s president.

Kellianne Hickey, 16, Jamie Surgent-Nahay, 17, and Megan Ryan, 16, are the 2015 winners of the President’s Writing Prize, an annual writing competition for sophomores and juniors supported by a national writing fellowship. Ryan is studying abroad in Argentina this semester.

Contest winners Jamie Surgent-Nahay, '17, and Kellianne Hickey, '16, pose with Fr. Linnane after receiving their prize.

The 2014-15 contest prompted students to consider “the imaginative acquisition of knowledge,” a concept made famous by early 20th century educator, philosopher, and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead in a speech, “Universities and Their Function: An Address to the American Association of the Collegiate Schools of Business, 1927.”

The students were asked to respond to Whitehead’s speech by writing about the importance of this concept in their own educational experiences at Loyola.

Submissions were judged by three members of Loyola’s faculty, who named three winners of nearly 20 entries.

Take a look at excerpts from this year’s winning essays:

“This is what makes education worth pursuing”

By Megan Ryan, 16

The classroom was silent.

Slowly, tentatively, a hand rose over the heads, and the teacher called on the only Thai student brave enough to break the silence.

“I think it’s because we don’t know any better. We don’t know what it means.”

Fifteen minutes prior, we had just finished a lecture about the Holocaust, and my teacher had ended the presentation by showing images of Hitler and of the Nazi flag on t-shirts and posters in Thailand, treated as a pop culture reference rather than as an atrocity in human history. In one particularly potent image, he showed a poster that had been painted to celebrate the graduating seniors at the school: it had been decorated with all kinds of super heroes, like Iron Man or the Hulk, and right in the center back row of the banner, Hitler had been painted with his arm raise in a Nazi salute.

But the student was right; the Thai people didn’t know any better. The teacher went on to explain that in the standard high school curriculum in Thailand, they are given three pages of reading about World War II, and in them, the Holocaust isn’t even mentioned.

I just finished up my last semester in Thailand, and although I did learn plenty one of the most important things I learned during my semester abroad was about what I believe education should be.

The teacher from the story is American-born, and moved to Thailand to teach. He teaches a history class there, and moments like the one I spoke of are some of his favorite parts of teaching. For the students in that classroom, it was more than just the knowledge they received. Sitting in that silence, waiting for a Thai student to speak up, you could see that both information and a series of connections were being made. In that class, they weren’t asked just to parrot back knowledge, but rather to make connections on their own. They were asked to take what they had learned and apply their own life and their own experiences to it, as well as to creatively evaluate the information.

They were asked to take part in an imaginative consideration of learning.

For many of those Thai students, this was the first history course that had asked them to do that. Alternately, this was something that I have been asked to do throughout my years of education, and especially during my time at Loyola.

The process of thinking and discussing and challenging and rethinking was exciting, and it makes learning interesting. The difference of opinions in that classroom and outside of that classroom are what make education in a college setting so exciting. The knowledge we learn in class should be expanded through an imaginative approach to it that challenges what we think we know. That’s the purpose of education, to challenge us and to expand our minds, both in depth of knowledge and in how we can begin to apply it to the world around us.

That, for me, is what I have found throughout my classes at Loyola. That perspective is what creates those moments of silence-moments of imaginative silence that have the power to enhance an education. Sometimes they are long, and sometimes they only last an instant.

Still, it is those moments of thought that capture the mind and expand it. That is what makes education worth pursuing. That is what every teacher should strive for, and what every student should seek. That is what gives the classroom purpose in a world where mere facts have become increasingly available.

That is the imaginative acquisition of knowledge.

Combining imagination and experience

By Kellianne Hickey, ’16

In the fall of my freshman year, I was surprised to learn that my Philosophy 201 class would be a service-learning course. Initially flustered by the addition of yet another time commitment to my growing schedule, I was assigned to Mr. Pugh’s third-grade class at Govans Elementary School.

While Govans is only a ten-minute walk down York Road, it seemed a world away from the privilege and affluence of Loyola. The classroom housed almost thirty students, making it extremely difficult for Mr. Pugh to ensure each child understood his lessons.

My job was to work one-on-one with students to provide individualized assistance. I spent many weeks working with multiplication flash cards and simple division equations. While this was a minor job, the kids and the teachers were so grateful that we had taken the time to come, even if only for two hours a week.

Back in Dr. Hanley’s philosophy classroom, my peers and I regularly discussed our time at Govans. When speculating on societal and moral issues, we were able to recall our involvement in scenarios that directly pertained to class questions of overcrowded schools, the correct way to discipline a child, the start of a common core curriculum in schools, and other matters of social inequality.

Without imagination, knowledge is dull facts and minor details that can be memorized and then lost forever. When intellect is imaginatively acquired, its whole manner changes. There are infinite possibilities to apply these facts to the outside world. There are repercussions of meaning and purpose. Presenting experience along with this imaginative-knowledge bases these potentials in the real world outside of an academic classroom. Through service-learning at Loyola, I realized that the purpose of education is not just to inform myself, but to take what I learn and relate it to society.

Whitehead refers to imagination as a “contagious disease:” it can only be imparted on others by those who have already been infected themselves. A successful university employs a faculty of creative professors, ready to share their zest for learning with their students. The imaginative attainment of knowledge in my education at Loyola would not be possible were it not for such mentors.

One particular professor that has greatly affected my time at Loyola is Dr. Maiju Lehmijoki-Gardner. Dr. Gardner epitomizes Whitehead’s description of a faculty member “whose learning is lighted up with imagination.” As a registered nurse, she brings both her academic background in theology and experience with the health care system to the classroom.

We first met on a Spring Break Outreach trip to Washington D.C. where our group spent the week working with those experiencing homelessness and poverty on the streets of the capital. After forming a close relationship through our service, and then in Theology 201, Dr. Gardner invited me to work with her on hunger-related research and the efforts of faith-based non-profit groups to combat the growing problem.

Under her guidance, I developed a project titled “Hungry for Justice: The New Roles of Religious Non-Profits in Advocating for American Hunger Relief since the 2008 Recession,” and received a grant from the National Fellowships Office last spring.

Dr. Gardner is a living example of a faculty member who combines imagination and experience for herself and her students.

Connecting the dots

By Jamie Surgent-Nahay, 17

Many people look at the functions of universities as a means to an end, a stepping stone to get to get to the next place in one’s life whether that may be a job or prerequisite for higher education. However, I have come to realize a greater purpose of universities’ missions especially at Loyola University. It is about connecting the dots, making sense of information studied and applying it. This was revealed to me in my Calculus II class this past semester—a class I feared and worried about the most.

On the journey to acquiring knowledge, hard work and perseverance is essential. It is what an education fosters. I believe this is the component that inspires imagination. It is not the ability to innovate state-of­ the-art ideas, save the world, or to thrive on a 4.0; rather I think it is the will to fight for one’s self in his or her education, as I did with calculus. I was not going to let polar equations intimidate me. It is the hope and motivation that one is capable of doing something never thought of doing. I never thought I would be successful and enjoy calculus… but I did. It was my best class this semester.

It is that power to encourage a person to grow emotionally, intellectually, and morally by becoming a more diverse, cultured individual. I found that in myself this semester. I found that I am human and my education is not about being the best, but my best. From that calculus class, I gained  perspective to look at the bigger picture: how everything is connected and interrelated in the world, and especially in the vast disciplines at Loyola University with my writing and other science classes. I learned to develop better problem solving skills, no longer memorizing words and problems, asking questions, and concentrating on individual tasks at one time.

The acquisition of knowledge is not a journey that must be ventured alone—another puzzle piece revealed in my journey of the heart this semester. The mission of Loyola University, or any university, is not for students to find their way on their own otherwise that defeats the purpose. I realized how much I needed people this semester. I learned so much from my peers, professors, classmates, and other faculty and staff.

Education does not start and stop within the classroom. It flows through and within the university. I experienced it from stories people told me, religious retreats I went on, and simple daily interactions. I learned life lessons and tools from the wonderful people I encountered at Loyola.

It is the accumulation  of mistakes, opportunities, experience, and lessons that one has gained and the courage to pursue a future with these tools and knowledge he or she has to offer. It does not mean one needs to know the answer to every question or have everything figured out for one’s self. I question myself daily, yet I think that only reminds me of why I am on this pursuit for knowledge in the first place, and that I am doing something right.

Challenging one’s self is the key to unlocking mysteries about ourselves, which is why I continually question my choices. Ironically enough, I questioned myself by the end of this semester if I should be a math major.

Knowledge is about learning from others and ourselves whereby we can unify the pieces from all aspects of life, creating a map of the heart, mind, and soul.

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