By Patricia Ducey. One day in 1967, a Palo Alto high school student asks his history teacher how the German people could have missed the signs of the ongoing genocide being perpetrated by the Nazis. This innocent question ignites an idea, and teacher Ron Jones launches a classroom “simulation,” or experiment, to illustrate how good Germans -how anyone – could fall prey to totalitarian thinking.
Forty years later, Philip Neel, one of the students who participated in that experiment dubbed The Third Wave, has produced a documentary, The Lesson Plan, featuring interviews with students who participated, and with teacher Ron Jones himself.
Jones reorganized his classroom that week into a simulation of a prototypical fascist youth group. He enforced physical discipline and uniformity in the students’ posture and speech per his first-day dictum, “Strength Through Discipline.” He meant it to end there, he now avers, but students were eager for more. He added more simplistic, effective sloganeering on the following days: strength through community, through action, through unity and finally through pride. Strength through Community meant, for instance, that students were to share grades. Top students helped the lower students. Jones was heartened by the increased level of participation of the weaker students, while he banished to the library for the remainder of the semester some more successful students – who of course resented lowering their grades so students who did not do the work could get higher grades. Similarly, anyone who spoke against The Third Wave faced a mock trial and banishment. At Jones’s urging, students secretly “informed” on other students who spoke against the Third Wave, and the car club guys appointed themselves as Jones’s bodyguards. Jones found out only at the reunion that a few of these guys beat up a student journalist who was writing a non-flattering article on The Third Wave. When an outsider student asked a Third Waver to explain what they stood for, he could not give an answer.
So in just a few days, the atmosphere of the school changed into something tense, charged with anticipation—but anticipation of what?
Ron Jones, a puzzling mixture of grandiosity and naïveté, claims he intended this to be only a one- or two-day experiment, but it went on for at least a week. Other students remember a longer or shorter period (the incident was not well documented at the time). He admits he was so energized with the power and passion of his movement that he upped the ante each day, introducing new methods of mind control. On day 5, when he finally exposed the movement as a lesson meant to teach the students that they were no better or worse than the Germans, the young students fell apart in a fog of betrayal and emotional panic. The tearful interviews of his students 40 years later testify to the damage wreaked by the experience.
There are some holes in the documentary: I would like to know more how students feel today about Jones’s methods. When Neel brought Jones back to the Third Wave reunion, for example, the reaction was decidedly subdued, and some students refused to participate in the documentary at all. Jones went on to be denied tenure by this school because of his involvement in organizing radical student groups and was fired from two subsequent schools; an interview in the school paper in 1970 reveals Jones’s involvement in the Black Panthers and other radical politics of the day. Some of Jones’s testimony seems, frankly, hyperbolic or self-serving, and more extensive interviews are needed, in my opinion, to substantiate his version of events. Something happened, though, and this documentary is a compelling start at unraveling the meaning of The Third Wave.
At the time this happened, Ron Jones was in his 20s, a handsome and ebullient teacher with a thousand-megawatt smile. An actor, as well as a poet and writer, he fancied himself a lover of humanity and a revolutionary as well. The line of authority between him and his students blurred: “He was one of us,” a student remembers. “We loved him,” remembers another. This charismatic leftist (not Klansman or bigot or conservative), hoodwinked his students into a fervent, blind obeisance that exceeded even his own wildest expectations. It was a relief to all when the simulation ended. So note well, dear readers, that when fascism ever so briefly came to America, it did come with a smiley face.
Posted on May 10th, 2011 at 10:08am.