Decision-Making: Headmaster Brennan Opens the Spring Term With Big Questions

In a virtual Opening of Spring Term Hall on April 5, Headmaster Kerry Brennan welcomed students and faculty back from the spring break, ushering in the closing months of the school year and the hope that they represent. At the heart of Mr. Brennan’s remarks was decision-making—specifically, how we go about making decisions when the stakes are high, and the path forward is not clear.

“Today I want to talk a bit about making choices—big ones and small ones,” Mr. Brennan began. “We do it every day. And others, with more consequential positions, make them on our behalf every day. When we are young, our parents are making decisions for us: What will you wear? What will you eat? When will you go to bed? Where will you go to school? Over time, given maturation, children and then young adults are granted the freedom to make more choices… One of the great tasks of parenting (and by extension schooling) is to provide children with the tools and the training and the formation of healthy habits that will allow them to be more independent. Of course, independence suggests both greater opportunities for freedom but also greater accountability. And as we get older… consequences end up being more dramatic. More meaningful… There are big decisions in our lives. Sometimes the decisions we make have to do with life or death—our own or somebody else’s.”

Prompted by the 75th anniversary that took place last summer, Mr. Brennan moved to explore “the ultimate decision concerning life and death,”—the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “In August of 1945, President Harry Truman made the decision to drop these newly created weapons on these two cities in order to end World War II…. Truman, a plainspoken Missourian, was eager to bring the war to an end. The American people had sacrificed a great deal over the ensuing nearly four years and were eager to return to normalcy—families reunited, the economy operating on a peacetime footing, reassurance that foreign affairs determined to a great extent by our might would offer predictability and stability.”

In the lead-up to Truman’s decision to drop the bombs, he “had been told that there would likely be 20,000 casualties—mostly military. In fact, 20,000 Japanese soldiers were killed, but, so, too, were more than 100,000 civilians killed in Hiroshima, and more than 60,000 in Nagasaki. Horrendous injuries were sustained by hundreds of thousands of people defacing them and handicapping them for the rest of their lives. The presence of deadly gas caused unfathomable birth defects in subsequent generations.

“Within a week of the bombings, Japan surrendered to our commanding general in the Pacific, Douglas MacArthur. Virtually unanimously, Americans celebrated the conclusion of an awful war and did not dwell much on the terrifying, new reality that had been unleashed. We know from historical documents that the Japanese had been demonized in a way the Germans and Italians had not. Are there deep-seated racial biases involved in those feelings? Probably, yes. Did that make it easier to justify and endure the killing of innocent people? When all was said and done, how was the decision to end the war this way made?

“In my presentation today about decision making, making choices, there could be no greater decision than the one Truman made. It affected millions of people. And it decided who would live and who would die. As with even the simplest decisions we make each day, certain elements led to consequential outcomes. How do we decide? How do we amass the facts? With whom do we consult? Whom will my decision affect? Is the outcome simply expedient, or is there a more significant ethical consideration? What is my North Star? What’s in my best interest? What’s in the best interest of the group? The country? The global family? I hope you will consider the ramification of this world-altering event.”

On the following morning, April 6, Mr. Brennan enlisted students and faculty for a Part II of this talk, which would enable live, in-class discussion in which boys and their teachers together would grapple with difficult moral decisions, and how we go about making them. After a brief, instructional webinar—during which he posed the classic, philosophical Trolley Problem—he offered several questions for discussion, which boys and faculty engaged in for the period.

View the entirety of Headmaster Brennan’s address.