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In 1972, on an unremarkable Monday morning, an American school teacher named Ron Jones was confronted with a question in his World History class: "How could the German populace claim ignorance of the slaughter of the Jewish people? How could the townspeople, railroad conductors, teachers, doctors, claim they knew nothing about concentration camps and human carnage? How can people who were neighbors and maybe even friends of the Jewish citizens say they weren't there when it happened?"

Ron didn't have an answer, but he decided to, without explaining exactly what he was doing, perform a social experiment to find out. He started by having the entire class practice a certain seating posture: feet flat on the floor, hands flat across the small of the back to align the spine correctly. This posture was supposed to aid concentration and focus while learning. He spent half the class period walking around the classroom, making small adjustments to particular students, having them all stand up and sit down in the proper posture as quickly as possible. It was disturbingly effective.

The next day, he came into the classroom to discover all his students were already sitting in this posture, silent and attentive, just as he'd instructed. So he went forward with the experiment a little more: explaining yesterday's exercise as an example of "strength through discipline" and then proceeded with "strength through community". Students would stand when called and recite, in unison, the "strength through discipline" motto. By the end of the class he had a special salute to go with the motto.

By the end of the week, he had, by his own testimony, a convincing scaled-down version of the Nazi Hitler Jugend, who not only enjoyed their feelings of shared superiority and reinforced discipline, but who had attracted nearly twice as many additional students from other classrooms. It was scary, and sobering. Students and teacher together learned the hard way just how easy it was, and still could be, for Adolf Hitler to rise to power.

And, to answer the original question, Ron Jones pointed this out as he dismissed his "party members" at the end of the week. Every one of them, himself included, went home and never said a word about it, never admitted to their participation, to anyone.

The original magazine article about the Third Wave, written by Ron Jones in 1972, can be found online at http://libcom.org/history/the-third-wave-1967-account-ron-jones






Sit up straight, address your elders as "Mr." and "Ms."

Always have paper and pencils ready. Carry your "Third Wave" card at all times.

Stand up to speak, answers should be brief and to the point.

Salute your friends with the "Third Wave"!  It's fun!

You'll be required to follow a dress code, but it's all in the name of equality and community.

We welcome your suggestions for "Third Wave" banners and posters for the classroom!

There's talk of this becoming a national movement, you might be the forerunners! Sign up your friends!

Wow! this is great! I can't think of a better way to reach at-risk urban youth! And you say that the kids did well? Better, well-researched papers? Creative questions? Thoughtful answers? Even from the class misfit? I can't wait to see the lovely banners they made! It's important for kids to have pride in themselves and their communities, don't you think?

Actually, the kids were white. And it was an affluent suburb. And the exercise was to talk about how the NAZI party movement could have taken over Germany, not to motivate poor kids. It worked. Turned them into a passable version of Hitler Jugend in just five days.

Oh, this is one of those "it can't happen here" stories, right?  From the so-called "American Heartland" (where we all know is just a hotbed for neo-NAZI's, KKK members, and far-right fanatics) a class full of kids is swayed by a popular, charismatic teacher into his own twisted politics? Right. Well, back in the 50's, kids were a lot more gullible....and even in the 80's...it was in a Republican administration...

Sorry, it was 1967. In Palo Alto, California. The teacher, who is still alive, is a standard-brand leftist, thank you very much. As a matter of fact, he was a bit of a hippie...lived in a treehouse.

Right. This isn't even believable...unless you want to make it one of those "Afterschool Special" movies, like that "Children's Story" thing. Or is it a reality show? This is getting weird. I can't help but think that some lines have been crossed here...impressionable minds, and all...I mean, has anyone tried to prosecute this guy?

Hey, a minute ago you wanted to give the guy a medal for working with ghetto kids! Isn't what's good for them what's good for your kids, too? And don't kids from the ghetto have a right to know what dangerous demagoguery looks and sounds like?

Well, I think ghetto kids have bigger fish to fry...like basic literacy, and getting a job...that kind of discipline can really be helpful. (Never mind that they're also the most at-risk population for this kind of thing....) But really, I don't think that the price of learning should be that kind of psychological torture. I mean, what if the kids decided to shoot someone, or go off on their own and torch a synagogue? Or did they actually do that? Didn't the principal have some misgivings about this?

No, they didn't -- as a matter of fact, the project was even praised by a rabbi, who, not knowing the "real" subtext, thought the idea was a great way to instill traditional values in rebellious high-schoolers. The principal, also in the dark, owned that the project was taking students away from other classes, but was otherwise enthusiastically supportive. Unlike what they tried to show in the various adaptations, it was a cabal of three girls, not a budding romantic couple, who were the real rebels. Perplexingly, the students were less likely to give stereotyped responses to questions, and shyer students were more likely to participate, contrary to expectations. The teacher, along with his students, kept the project a secret until he spilled the beans in The Whole Earth Review in 1974. Since then, he's been besieged by various parties who have:

  1. wanted him to start a "Third Wave" in their schools to stimulate academic and athletic achievement (a kind of "Miracle-Gro" effect)
  2. wanted him to do the same experiment to show the kids what a "real" (not a canned, "Nineteen Eighty-Four" lookalike, where every kid pretends to be an heroic rebel) totalitarian regime is like, or
  3. wanted him to star in a reality show version of the same thing.
Instead of doing any of these things, he's nobly decided to participate in a documentary, Lesson Plan. (It's a good 'un.) My best guess is that it was not exactly a reproducible experiment: not that there isn't any chance that It Might Happen Here, but the teacher had already spent most of the year gaining the students' trust and friendship, this was during the Vietnam War era, when organizing for causes (in a disciplined manner) was fashionable, etc.
The philosophical questions remain....

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