The following discusses The Third Wave, an experiment undertaken by Contemporary History teacher Ron Jones of Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California in the year 1967, to show his students the appeal of fascism.
The following comments are based on a 1981 made-for-TV special about The Third Wave, although it bounces back between the actual facts and the content of the special.
For any teacher, the inability to answer a question from one of your students must fell like a parent not knowing how to help a child. I can’t speak for a teacher, seeing as I’m not one myself, but I can only assume how it must make them feel. Ron Jones was teaching his students about Nazi Germany and how people would go a long with their killing of Jews and other innocent people, when one of his students asked him why people would participate in something so horrible. Puzzled, Jones doesn’t know how to answer the question – so he decides to show it, by creating a classroom government known as “The Third Wave”, whose objective is to eliminate democracy. He designed a logo, an insignia, and a motto – “Strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride.”, complete with an accompanying pledge-like hand motion.
Jones began to gradually exact additional layers of discipline on the students, too. He had them stand up to answer a question in class, for example. Before long, The Third Wave became a school-wide group, with flyers being distributed, membership cards going around, and even a physical altercation between Wave members and a local student who questioned its beliefs. What had essentially been created was a Nazi party all of its own.
It sounds comical, and probably pretty unbelievable that a single teacher could form a “Nazi-like government” in school. But it’s true, and despite the relative lack of documentation of The Third Wave experiment, it’s supported at least in theory by the concepts of social psychology.
To not believe in the possibility of The Third Wave is to underestimate the power of social competence and the need for belonging that are essential to the human being – the former defined by Erik Erikson, the latter by Abraham Maslow. Human beings are social creatures – they crave for interaction with others; introverts and unsociable fellows are the exception, not the norm. Even though we often find ourselves frustrated by our social lives (okay, that goes mostly for adolescents, I’ll give you that), we cannot live without it (kinda like women). And so, in a world of social conflicts, finding a unit, a purpose, something to believe in, is quite the influence. In the made-for-TV dramatization, the benefits of The Third Wave are best shown in Robert – a shy, often picked on youth that, when given a coveted membership role in the group, essentially turns himself around and becomes a leader – confident, sociable, determined, hard-working, walking with a purpose. The Third Wave gives him something to believe in, but it also gives him a sense of identity that contributes to feeling of achievement and power (thanks to the high membership position) but also one of possibly harmful attachment to The Third Wave; essentially, Robert’s life depends on The Third Wave for guidance and identity.
The Third Wave causes problems throughout the school. Kids are beat up by members of the Wave advocating their beliefs; no one is able to think for themselves anymore, and cannot see the harm they are causing due to the fact that they are blinded by unchanging belief and faith in the mission of the Wave. Two students, whom were previously in a relationship, are broken up when the guy in the relationship decides to continue participating in the Wave. Later on, a violent altercation happens between the two, as the girl tells him that the Wave is hurting everyone while he, unfazed and otherwise angered by her comments, grabs her violently and causes her to fall on the ground. This causes an epiphany in him which convinces him the Wave really is as harmful as she says – if it’s causing him to act this way, there’s definitely something wrong. They talk to their teacher, Ron Jones about the situation, and he decides he really should stop the Wave movement. But he does it “in his own way”.
Calling for a Wave meeting between all of the Wave members – the number of which by now has skyrocketed and is exponentially greater than what it originally was – the teacher tells the Wave members that their national leader will be speaking to them on the big screen in the Auditorium. A few minutes later, no leader shows up on the screen. One student calls out – “there is no leader, is there?” The teacher replies sharply – “yes! That’s your leader!” as he points to a 35mm projection of Adolf Hitler during one of his speeches. Everyone in the room is instantly demoralized as they realize what they’ve become – the teacher even says that they all would’ve made good Nazis.
This is what it comes down to. The power of obedience, when accompanied by the benefit of fitting in and being part of a group in which you’re unconditionally accepted, respected, and held in high esteem, is indeed very great. For this same reason, students go into drugs, alcohol consumption, and smoking when their friends do the same – “come on man, come smoke with us, man.” Same goes for crime – “what, are you scared we’ll get caught or something?” Same goes for elementary school treachery – “just take it, the teacher won’t notice.” As well as for high school apathy, “you’re never gonna learn this stuff anyway; come on, let’s go.” It’s scary to think that we are our own greatest enemies – but I guess that’s the virtue of being human.
It’s all about learning to fear yourself.