The Third Wave / The Wave : Ron Jones’s Experiment in Fascism

I was eleven years old when I watched THE WAVE on ABC’s Afterschool Special. You may remember the short movie, which was based on The Third Wave experiment conducted by teacher Ron Jones at a Palo Alto’s Cubberley high school in 1967. The film left a strong impression on me, and I’ve thought about it many times over the years. I recently found it on YouTube (see below). While the video quality is poor, for anyone who remembers seeing it as a kid, it’s worth watching a few minutes for a trip down memory lane.

I remember the film as being very scary, and, at the end, very revelatory. While teaching a unit on Nazi Germany, Jones introduced a mantra–“Strength Through Unity,” a symbol (which Jones, a surfer, thought up on the fly), a salute, and a way of thinking to his high school history class. The accoutrements of the movement held eerie echoes of Hitler’s rise to power. While Jones had planned a one-day simulation, he realized the experiment had become much bigger than he planned when the kids quickly fell in line, the classroom swelled with new converts, and students who refused to join were reportedly harassed. Students were encouraged to inform on one another, and Jones threatened students who resisted with an F for the semester. Those who attempted to speak or write against The Wave were exiled from the classroom and isolated by other students.

The experiment ended days or weeks later (depending on whom you ask), at the infamous assembly, when several hundred students who had been promised a live telecast of The Wave’s leader were confronted, instead, with a screen full of static and Jones’s revelation that the whole thing had been a fake. Amid their confusion, he told them that THIS was how fascism happened–ordinary people who blindly went along with a movement, beholden to a leader, without considering the consequences.

While many people who were there claim that Jones’s version of events–on which the film is based–are way out of step with reality, for me as an 11-year-old kid in Alabama, there was definitely educational value in the film in that it showed in stark terms the dangers of indoctrination and groupthink.

A 2010 documentary, Lesson Plan (see excerpt and interview below), tells the story of the Third Wave from the students’ perspective. Lesson Plan, which received a slew of awards, was shown at the United Nations earlier this month and has been screened for school kids around the world.

As it turns out, unsurprisingly, many of the students in the original experiment felt used by Jones, and many felt the experiment–which Jones claimed was intended to show how ordinary citizens become swept up in fascist ideology–went too far. But there was also a sense that Jones had taught them something they would have otherwise have been unlikely to learn: how evil infiltrates decent communities, and how “good kids” can unwittingly sign on to a movement that they don’t understand. Fascism, the lesson goes, can happen anywhere if individuals fail to be vigilant.

Here’s an interview with the co-directors of Lesson Plan, as well as class members from the Cubberley High experiment and Ron Jones.

An interesting personal side note: When my son was very young, he and I used to take parent/child swimming lessons at the Janet Pomeroy Center in San Francisco. Our swim instructor was an older man named Ron. While researching The Wave last week, I discovered not only the Bay Area connection to the story, but also the fact that Ron Jones, having been fired from Cubberley High School and later from another high school, went on to teach for 30 years at the Janet Pomeroy Center. I have no idea if he was the person who taught our swim classes, but if he is, what a strange turn of events.

Read all about the movie, the novelization, and the original experiment here.

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Sans Serif is the blog of author Michelle Richmond.

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