terza onda Sergio SouzaStereotype-in-English

The Third Wave, how to end up conformed

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The Sixties had been a time of great social changes, pushed by movements of students, women, blacks, workers or artists, like Provos in Holland. In this political and historical context, professor Ron Jones decides to try an innovative and hazardous experiment.

Ron Jones is 26 and he teaches History in Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California. He is appreciated by his students because he is able to stimulate them and instil curiosity, sense of analysis, energy. He is one of those teacher who doesn’t stop at a superficial reading of text books, he wants to deepen, focus on particular perspectives.

When the chapter on World War II arrives, Jones lingers on the worst aspect for planning, numbers and timing: the holocaust. And on two classic questions: how was it possible to let it happen? How did the German population feel during the Third Reich?

It’s early April 1967 and Jones proposes his (supposed) one day experiment: inculcate strict discipline to the class. He writes “strength through discipline” on the board and explains the students how to enter the room, sit, listen to the lesson. All with Wagner as a soundtrack, to get into the part.

gioventù hitleriana
Hitler Youth, picture from Wikipedia

The students slowly start to conform, they learn the movements, they perform them quicker. They feel a sense of unity, equality, compactness, no more top of the class dragging the others, they all obey the authority in silence. There’s also a blackmail, or reward (it depends on the points of view). Whoever follow orders better will have the best score.

It was supposed to finish that day: experiment, debate on totalitarianisms, lesson learned. Actually, Jones is so surprised by the outcome that he decides to go on.

On day 2, he finds the students already at their places, in order, quiet, no usual school chattering. He started shaping the group and second focus is on community. “Strength through community” is the new slogan on the board. Jones glorifies collective values, bonds, sharing a common cause – which are more than fine until you start thinking you are the best, the chosen one.

They need an identifying symbol and they go for the Third Wave, not because of the Third Reich but because, in surf, the third wave is the most powerful and awaited – after all they live in California. The exclusive salute consists in putting the hand curved like a wave. Jones chooses three students and give them a special grade, a red “X” on a badge. In exchange, they will report on those who violate the rules, included not to speak of the experiment outside the class. He’s got his own Gestapo.

Todd Strasser, The Wave

But, apparently, someone must have told the others about the Wave, because in the next days more and more students attend the class. The team-building works, puts them on the same level, no bullies and outcast, smart and not-so-good – which is more than fine until it becomes an extreme distortion.

Day 3, the word is “action”. “Strength through action”, discipline is important, but then you have to do something. They start recruiting external members and they isolate those who make too many questions, threatened to get low scores. It’s not a game any more, it’s an (unaware) witch hunt.

Day 4, “strength through pride”. Jones make them believe that the movement is now national, ready to compete with Democrats and Republicans. And that there will be a big rally, in fact the grand finale.

Jones stages the auditorium like there was a real event. He brings some friends with cameras, to simulate an impressive media coverage, and a TV set that will show the leader of the Third Wave. There are about 200 people, the students are more than doubled since the first day and they proudly show the fake press everything they learned.

Eventually, Jones turns the TV on, but there’s nothing, only a static. The kids are confused, left alone by Jones who sneaked out of the room from the back door. He comes back with an unpleasant truth, there’s no movement, no leader, they basically just adhered to Nazism.

The TV broadcasts images of the collective displays of the Hitler Youth, sure, way more spectacular than the Third Wave ones, but based on the same manipulatory principles. The kids were so blinded by the need of acceptance, being a part of something or grades, that no one realized the parallelism for a whole week.

Ron Jones will be forced to abandon his position. He asked himself, more than once, if he did the right thing or he pushed them too far. Someone could actually have gotten hurt, as pressure and tension were really high in those days. But only with the theory the students wouldn’t have learned such a lesson.

The Wave, German movie version of Ron Jones’ experiment

The kids stated, in many interviews for documentaries or news reports, that those external to the experiment couldn’t figure out how did they fall into the trap. But that’s the most devious part of totalitarianism, making people gradually and slyly go towards a consent dictated by propaganda and the protection given by the sense of membership. Violence itself is not enough.

The experiment had been shown all over the world for educational purpose, especially in Germany, where the book The Wave by Todd Strasser (1981) became a school text. More recently, in 2008, a film version was realized, adapted to current Germany (instead of California in the Sixties).

After his experience in Cubberley High School, Ron Jones moved to San Francisco, where he taught to mentally and physically disabled people.


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