Essay Contest

First Place

Acquired Knowledge:

How Our Past Mistakes Can Help Our Future

By: Erin Elizabeth Gallagher

Junior, Providence High School

Catastrophic events have occurred throughout recorded history, often as a result of our own blind anger and irrational violence. Innocent people are caught in the crossfire; ethnicities and countries create long-lasting hatred towards each other because of old grievances they refuse to forget. Only a handful of voices have cried out for an end to this; we have heard their famous speeches and are still moved by their conviction, but we have not actively followed their advice. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and more have called for peace, warning against perpetuating the mistakes we have inherited from times gone by. If we want to ensure our safety and the safety of subsequent generations, we need to quit our habits, cold-turkey.

In America in 1838, we saw thousands of Cherokee march westward, hundreds dying on the trail during their forced relocation. In World War II the world saw Hitler’s Final Solution and Third Reich kill millions, and haunt the memories of a million more. We saw the race riots following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death tear apart our cities and take innocent lives. Today, we see the ongoing conflict in the Middle East threaten both those who live there and those who do not. As with many other instances, we are hurtling down a track at a frightening speed to deeper moral collapse. Perhaps we can turn our momentum around, and harness it to be an engine for peace. Perhaps, if we can use our memories and experiences to teach children to use wisdom and empathy, we can all sign a cease-fire that will last.

Teaching the children of the world is much easier said than done; our nature will always encourage us to hit back when another strikes us. We will have to remind them constantly of tragedies and their consequences in order for the children to understand the reasons behind our instruction. It is necessary to draw from our knowledge of the past and of ethics to combat our own nature. Violent protests, while they may accomplish a temporary fix, cannot bring about a permanent resolution to a problem. Through Gandhi’s example of peaceful protest, his goals were realized and the world was amazed at the power of patience and kindness. It is understood that one cannot fight fire with fire and expect the situation to improve; rather, it will only cause both fires to become stronger. When water is used, the fire is extinguished. Instead of continuing the fight, the water simply ends the whole thing. We can use precedents set by the events of our history to teach children what does and does not work, and what can improve our quality of life. We have learned, by living through many wars, that a happier and safer life is led in peacetime than a life led in wartime.

There is no direct approach to mending our mindsets. Although we cannot gather everyone in the world together and ask them to play nicely, we can gather our families, schools, and towns together to start a movement. Like a popular saying that becomes more prevalent with each person who says it, starting with one child and traveling through schools, radios and televisions to eventually be included in the dictionary, we can end violence by starting at the roots. Grassroots movements can change an entire region’s way of thinking, though they take many generations to realize. This reversal will not happen overnight, but if we start now, our great-great-grandchildren can live in a better world than we do. Fighting our instincts and making use of our consciences will require fervor and work, but the toil is well worth the final product. This change in mentality will require continuous vigilance, as our nature cannot change with our values. As children associate discipline and consequence with bad behavior, we must associate death and a long-term negative impact on our society with our own “bad behavior.”

The knowledge of the past, and the steady instruction of children to avoid the mistakes their parents have made, will be the water with which we put out our fire. It is all too easy to see the problems of today and be intimidated, to say that no one can help the situation. To say a task is impossible serves only to increase its size, so that further discouragement is inevitable. There will be many obstacles to the process of changing our future, but it is possible to overcome them. The size of an obstacle should not be an athlete’s concern; the focus should be on the way they will get around it, and the heart should be set on the finish line.