significant learning experience occurred at a high school in
Palo Alto, California,
one that continues to resonate.
It was, in fact, called "the Wave," or more precisely the
Wave." Just like the Third Reich, except that it came from the lingo of
who supposed that the third wave, in a series of them, was the
Jones was a new teacher in a Contemporary World History class, and had
serious questions about how
a lesson in authoritarianism, after a student asked him whether Nazi
Germany could happen here in the US. What brings fascism to public
in asupposedly sane society? Could fascism occur in an
affluent suburblike the one where the school was located?
Jones was young, idealistic and somewhat radical. In the
sophomore class he was teaching, he decided to try
for one day -- for the second, third and sixth periods of the class --
teaching style that would demand total obedience and require his
students to follow his orders, or what he
called his "instructions," to the utmost degree. It was only a test. He
didn't realize the repercussions it would
For example, he thought these dictates -- requiring the
students to address him as "Mr. Jones, that they sit
upright, and that they stand before answering questions posed to them
-- would serve as interesting contrast to the casual and congenial
methods he usually preferred.
Teaching his class with such authoritarian style might lead to
resistance, one might think, especially given the temper of the times.
Instead, it had the opposite effect. It met
with such strong approval that it even led to a growth on its own.
Jones imagined the exercise to be just a one day affair. But when
he began the class.the
next day, the students, unbidden, were all sitting at attention. His
interest in what would happen next led him to continue the
playing of the previous day. This would continue.
Jones delivered lectures emphasizing "Strength Through DIscipline," and
developed a special wave salute. Students created armbands,
banners and identity cards.
On the membership card, Jones marked each third one with an "X" and
those who received them were told to behave as informers on those who
rules. In addition, Jones recruited a group of student enforcers who
would function as a secret police or Gestapo, both on campus and after
school. They were
joined by a bunch of "greasers," ominiously called "The Executors", who
entranced by the Third Wave, and wanted to join in the policing.
Word got around. Students from other classes wanted to join the
class. VIolence and false accusations became rife. Those accused of
wrongdoing were often
convicted based on a voice vote of the class, bolstered by fabricated
When parents learned of the events taking place in Ron Jones' class,
the whole exercise eventually came
to a halt, but not before Jones was able to demonstrate to his students
and the rest of the
world that they we were willing, for a time, and to be in a special
place, to "give up their freedom up for the chance of being
just like most of the German people did under Nazism.
Third Wave" -- the actual events at Cubberly HIgh School in Palo Alto,
brings to mind the another infamous experiment in the same city" the
so-called "Stanford Prison
Experiment," where students Professor Philip
Zimbardo's undergraduate psychology class were divided into
two categories -- either prisoners or jailers -- and the zealousness of
the jailers and the submissiveness of the prisoners became
so pronounced that it resembled -- for lack of a better contemporary
comparison -- the antagonisms of the American prison guards and their
atrocities at the Baghdad Correctional Facility (also known as Abu
Ghraib) in Iraq. The Zimbardo thing
happened four years before "The Third Wave," but the similarities are
Ron Jones was a popular teacher, but soon he had
to leave his position at the high School, in large part due to the
experiment caused. He has been for many years a
teacher at a school for the disabled in San Francisco and been
prolific as a writer, poet and storyteller -- and straight-shooter --
in his real life, as well as on the basketball court.
Jones wrote about his
experiences in an article for the
Whole Earth Journal Screenwriter
Johnny Dawkins turned the article into a teleplay, and prducer
Norman Lear (famous for his "All In The Family" series and several
other TV hits) developed the telemovie for ABC in
American children's book author (Drive Me Crazy)
wrote a novel based on the story. and it was phenomenally successful in
Germany. It became standard
reading in German high schools.Over one and a half
million copies of the book have been sold. Because of his affiliation
with the story, Ron Jones is treated like a rock star over there.
Now over twenty
-five years later, this German movie, came to be made, and
was released in 2008. Director Dennis Gansel is no stranger to
the politics around his movie. His
grandfather was an active Nazi, serving in the Wehrmacht and his father
was a left-wing anarchist. It is not surprising that his earlier
cinematic efforts dealt with the Nazis, and the left-wing
radical group The Red
In this movie and updated version of the "The Thrd Wave," the high
school teacher, Rainer Wenger (played by Jurgen Vogel) drives a fast
car, and wears a Ramones
T-Shirt to class. He is snotty and definitely punkish. The schoool
where he teaches is filled with the children of
an affluent, post-unified Germany.
The direction is smart and sparse, filled with action and a raucous
Unlike in real life, at the end of the "experiment," which culminated
in a shooting in the classroom, Wenger is shown being led of to a
police squad car, while horror-struck citizens and students watch.
"Die Welle" has won numerous awards, it has been shown all
world. One review called it "history in the first person."
Director Gansel has also claimed, "This isn't about politics at all. It
is more about group dynamics and psychology." It also was shown at
2008--and in many, many other countries--yet it still doesn't have a
distributor in the US.
Still, Jones, is pessimistic about the chances for a wide
reception in the US. I wrote to Todd Strasser, the American
author of The Wave
and screenwriter for "Die Welle"and he replied:
"'Die Welle' was shown at
MOMA a few months ago, but I would agree with Ron that US distribution
is dubious. We're far to puritanically hypocritical to allow it."
There are some who complain that the incident has been widely
blown out of proportion. Soon these objections may be laid to
rest after forty years in another production.
A student in the Jones'original class, Philip
Neel, became a TV Producer in Hollywood ("Moonlighting,"
"Boston Legal"), and wanted to make a documentary about his experiences
with "The Third Wave", Neel enlisted
another director, David Jeffery, and producer Robert Del Valle.
and they are in the final post- production stage of a film entitled
"Lesson Plan" that is about 83 minutes long, They have
about half of the original class for the lensing. They are actually
starting to already show some of it in preview form; and, according to
Neel, the audience feedback has been good and strong