Choice and Fatalism

Like so many accidents, the sinking of the Titanic was the result of decisions based on an unqualified, unmerited hubris. A string of choices, some seemingly small at the moment, led to the moment when ice was falling onto the fo’c’sle as the berg carved the gash into the bow of the ship that doomed it.

As part of the district-mandated fourth-quarter “choices” thematic unit for eighth grade, I’m having students read a passage from an article at the Titanic Historical Society that describes the decisions of the captain and crew that led to that most famous of disasters. An initial step was to have students read the passage and circle any passages that describe a choice being made.

I thought this was a fairly simple, fairly obvious task for reading, and that’s critical: as students are reading, they need to have some secondary, text-related task to keep track of to help keep interest and provide a purpose for reading. But to see others’ choices, you first have to be able to see your own. You have to be aware of the choices you make on a daily — indeed, hourly — basis; you need to see the choices of those around you and understand they are just that: choices.

What happens when a room filled with fatalistic students reads such a text? They simply can’t see choices anywhere. The read something like this and see no choice:

At 1:40 pm the [wireless] operators’ working routine was disturbed by an incoming message from the White Star liner Baltic: “Captain Smith, Titanic. Have had moderate variable winds and clear fine weather since leaving. Greek steamer Athinai reports passing icebergs and large quantities of field ice today in latitude 41.51 N. longitude 49.11 W…Wish you and Titanic all success. Commander.” This particular message was handed directly to Captain Smith, who, instead of posting it in the chart room, gave it to Bruce Ismay who casually put it in his pocket. Later in the day Smith asked for it back.

Two clear choices there: the captain chose not to put the message in the chart room, presumably where it belonged, and Ismay chose, upon receiving the message from the captain, to put the it in his pocket.

Almost no one saw the choice.


Later, we read the following:

From the German steamer Amerika wireless operator Otto Reuter sent at 1:45 PM: “Amerika passed two large icebergs in 41 degrees 27′ N., 50 degrees 8′ W., on the 14th April.”

Previous messages had been promptly delivered to the bridge but this one never got there. Titanic’s wireless unexpectedly went dead and Phillips, busy trouble shooting, shoved aside probably the most critical ice warning.

Another choice, to brush this message aside. And no one saw it.

These are kids who say “what will be, will be.” These are kids who get in trouble and can’t see what choices led to that trouble. These are kids who see themselves as victims. They don’t see choices in front of them; they see a string of inevitabilities behind them.


What did some of them indicate as a choice? This passage:

The night was crystal clear; there was no moon and the sky was filled with stars. The sea looked as smooth as plate glass, paradoxically, a disadvantage for the lookouts. Without waves breaking around an iceberg’s base leaving a wake, it would be hard to spot without reflective moonlight, especially if a berg was showing its dark side.

Kids surrounded by choices and see only inevitabilities.


I wondered about their fatalism this evening as I finished up the Leyland cypress trimming. As I moved a ladder, a dove fluttered from the tree, and I realize there must be a nest near my ladder. I’d seen the birds around the trees several times, and I suppose I’d assumed there was a nest, but I’d never investigated. Yet a few minutes of very intentional investigation revealed the nest and a bit of trimmed twig on the baby bird.

How much of that was choice and how much of that was accident, fate? That the twig landed the bird was accidental; that the twig was small enough to leave the bird uninjured was accidental; that I trimmed knowing there might be a nest in the vicinity was a choice, though not entirely conscious.

Had I, in a moment of cruelty, reached my hand down and tipped the bird from the nest, that too would have been a choice. A sadistic, even evil choice. Would the students have seen it as such? It seems impossible to imagine them not seeing the element of decision in that. But then again, it seemed impossible for them not to see the element of choice in all the Titanic’s crew’s actions as well.

How do you teach children to see choice in an arbitrary text when they see no choice in their own lives? How can you not feel a tinge of worry and even dismay when you think about the future of such children?


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