The 2014-2015 High School Essay Contest Winners:
1st Place and Honorable Mention

First Place

Bryan Jordan Holden
Grade 12
James Bowie High School
Arlington, Texas

Being an open minded individual is extremely important in today's society. Technology has shrunken the entire world into a pocket-sized wealth of information. It is imperative, now more than ever before, that we as people are able to understand and empathize with others. Tolstoy's statement speaks to this idea of an unbiased, mental freedom. He seems to understand that if we limit ourselves by our own personal beliefs, we completely miss the value and beauty of the things around us. We live our entire lives through one perspective, and it is only when we open ourselves up to other possibilities that we grow and develop as people.

Tolstoy's statement addresses the constant battle between personal knowledge and the shared knowledge of a society. Tolstoy asserts that one's personal knowledge can hinder their ability to embrace the shared knowledge of others. To me, this statement is completely accurate. I think it becomes impossible for us to fully comprehend people as long as we filter them through our own internal ideas about life. When we evaluate things and people based on how agreeable they are with our personal understandings, we often miss out on who they really are.

Earlier this year, in Ferguson, Missouri an unarmed black teen named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer. His death was soon followed by a grand jury decision not to indict the officer who shot him. This situation, followed by many others that were very similar, resulted in one of the most heated and passionate discussions about race and equality our country has seen in decades. People have taken to the streets across America and have begun fiercely protesting. This ordeal epitomizes the importance of the ability to think beyond one's self.

Riots have broken out in several places, all in the name of equality for black Americans. Many of these violent riots have caused a dark cloud of judgment to loom over the black community as whole. It is hard to imagine what the people of Ferguson might be experiencing, but as a country we must try to understand. We have to push away our own personal beliefs in order to comprehend the plight of our fellow countrymen. With that being said, I also believe if people could get past their own personal grievances and challenges, there would be no violence. If all people had the ability to care equally for others as they did themselves, the world would be an extremely different place.

There are reasons for the actions of others, and regardless of how we may feel, some things are far bigger than ourselves. This is directly related to Tolstoy's statement because he suggests the idea that prejudice of the mind is common, and that most people cannot think outside of themselves. The Ferguson situation has challenged people to extend themselves beyond their own lives, and to truly reflect on how other people's lives can be altered and effected. Racial prejudice is not unlike any other prejudice, and it is just as damaging to our society.

Many of the people leading and participating in the riots across our country are young people, and that is truly significant. The youth of America hold in their hands the fate of our country. As a teenager, I have already encountered people with many different outlooks on life. I strongly believe that if young people are given the opportunity to embrace knowledge, untainted by bias or personal agendas, in its most pure form, they will respond positively to it. The youth of today are far more open minded than in previous decades, so I think now is the time to really change the way we think about each other. If we start during our youth, by the time our generation reaches maturity, the cycle of prejudice and misconceptions will be broken. Young people should take it upon themselves to discuss topics that are hard to tackle. Many feel that because a person is young, they can't understand or contribute to a conversation about heavier subjects. I believe all people have value, as do their opinions and perspective. This idea is especially important when someone is still young, and is in the process of formulating their ideas about how to understand others.

We can eliminate prejudice through education. Not just education about specific ideas, but by educating people about how they think. Tolstoy's suggestion that we are innately self-serving in our thinking is quite accurate, but if we break that cycle, perhaps we will gain a more a universal and empathetic way of thinking.

Honorable Mention

Oluwaseun Deborah Afolayan
Grade 12
The Collegiate School
Richmond, Virginia

Prejudice stems from a lack of knowledge, from the fact that there are things that we, as individuals, do not know. Prejudice is actions stemmed from misconceptions. I believe that Tolstoy statement means that in order for people to change the world, we must think in a way where our preconceived notions are not a factor in our decision-making. Notions that may or may not be true. Our opinions are based on our experiences, not someone else's. How can one possibly have an opinion on an event they have never experienced? That is prejudice. Tolstoy also said that freethinkers must not be afraid to understand things that contradict their customs, privileges, or beliefs. That, to me, is the most important part of being a freethinker.

What we believe is important to us; it is personal to us for a reason. The greatest gift you can give to another is understanding why their beliefs are important to them. I remember being a little kid, and yelling at other people to make them see my way, because I was so sure that I was right. As I grew, I knew that it was not always the case, and created many embarrassing moments for me. I believe that to eliminate prejudice, one must sit down and understand why other people's views are different from their own. I would never say that one has to agree, because this is reality, and not everyone can agree on everything. I simply believe that one must understand where another is coming from.

Before one makes a "fair assumption," they need to gather all of the facts, not just the ones the agree with their argument or proposition and not the facts that are given by the media. In order to eliminate prejudice, we have to change how people think and how people gather information.