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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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34 Responses to “Experiment in Fascism at an American High School: The Lesson Plan @ The Newport Beach Film Festival”

  1. shinsnake says:

    Wow, that’s downright scary. I took the “Obama mmm mmm mmm” videos with a little bit of laughter when I saw them, thinking them harmless and I even watched “Indoctrinate U” with a little bit of skepticism on how effective that stuff could be, but after watching and reading that, I’m almost ashamed that I wasn’t appalled to a greater extent on both accounts.

    • Patricia says:

      The “lesson” that I got is that fascism is an incremental process. It’s just a song, we say, but it could also be seen as a first step.

  2. [...] Lesson Plan: “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.” [...]

  3. chrisballance says:

    Thanks for the tip about this documentary. I don’t think that building a class room size neo-Hitler youth group would be difficult for a charismatic person with a basic understand of group sociology or exposure to the workings of religious cults. The problem always occurs when you try to scale-up the seduction + intimidation act. Hitler’s initial efforts to grow the power and ranks of DAP (later the NSDAP) where not near as successful as many histories claim.

    However, I am glad that Ron Jones never had the chance to more fully play out his Third Wave. There is no educational benefit to starting a cult group in a classroom to show kids how easy it is to fall victim to one.

    • Patricia says:

      It would be interesting to know Hitler’s plan to grow the movement in those initial days.

      As for Ron Jones, I think his actions were cruel. He has expressed regret, and I believe his sincerity on that count. He was in his 20s and simply lost control. I guess everybody was a little crazy in the ’60s.

      • 1389AD says:

        I disagree; I think he got carried away simply because he loves power for its own sake, as evidenced by his subsequent record of organizing radical student groups.

    • The Monster says:

      “There is no educational benefit to starting a cult group in a classroom to show kids how easy it is to fall victim to one.”

      I disagree. A lot of people can study history, roll their eyes and say “Well, that was just those Germans. we would NEVER fall for something that silly!”. Then when you see it happen, you’ll be better equipped when someone tries to pull it on you for real.

      Check out the Milgram Experiment some time, and weep for humanity.

      • chrisballance says:

        Sorry, but it’s too easy to brainwash and intimate kids. This reckless 1967 experiment did not provide the participants with a real understanding of how any ‘good’ German adult could fall victim to the Nazis You can’t simulate in a few days what happened to millions of individual Germans between 1920 and 1945. It’s possible to demonstrate the effectiveness of some of the methods used by groups like the Hitler Youth in class room, but it is completely unethical to make teenagers participants in this kind of experiment. Clearly many of the kids where not equipped to deal with the aftermath of the experiment. There are no larger lessons to be learned here. Ron Jones carefully picked a group of kids to exploit. I don’t think he understood just how reckless his experiment was at the time, but that does not really matter. He violated the trust of this students and no doubt badly damaged many kids relationships with their peers.

      • The Monster says:

        @chrisballance (I don’t see a Reply link under your comment).

        I am not defending the propriety of this particular experiment, only rejecting the assertion that there is no educational benefit. I believe that an experiment conducted with proper controls including proper “debriefing” of the participants when their roles end, can be very educational indeed, while still assuring no one comes to any psychological or physical harm.

        I’ve run across far too many people who believe there is something intrinsically evil about the German nation that led to the rise of Nazism. That’s absurd on its face, for the relatively tolerant climate there made it the place many Jews went when they fled the Inquisition in hard-core Catholic countries like Spain and France. These people are also profoundly ignorant of our own history. Master propagandists under Wilson in WWI literally wrote the book that Göbbels used. We just don’t talk about the ugly things that came out of the use of those techniques here.

        Frankly, there are so many parallels between our current situation and the Weimar Republik that it’s far too easy for me to imagine a charismatic leader taking power and scapegoating some group to give the people an outlet for their hate. Believing we’re somehow superior over Germans, and it could never happen here? That kind of hubris is pretty much an engraved invitation to the next Hitler.

      • NewOrleansAnn says:

        Monster, thanks for pointing this out. I remember studying this in a college course, in my late 30s or early 40s, and thought every young person should have this education. Personally, to this day, I don’t even feel comfortable following a group of people to a destination. I was on vacation a few years ago, and did not want to follow the group. It is a VERY healthy thing to teach our young how easy it is to be coerced into doing things you do not feel comfortable with, and to resist following without being thoughtful.

  4. Frank Castle says:

    I remember seeing something similar to this several (maybe 15?) years ago. I don’t know if what I saw was supposed to be “factual” but I can’t say it would have surprised me.

    • TheAbstractor says:

      This was the plot line of an ABC Afterschool Special called “The Wave” that aired in 1981, based on a young adult’s book by the same name. It was based on actual events.

    • Lynette Posey says:

      Maybe it was a 1981 TV movie called “The Wave” starring Bruce Davison.

  5. Tricia says:

    I vividly remember watching Bruce Davison in “The Wave” as an ABC Afterschool Special. When I was a public high school history teacher (over 10 years ago), I would show “The Wave” when kids were asking the same initial question: how could the average German citizen gone along with it? The movie got mixed reactions from the students. They saw it as somewhat cheesy – they couldn’t imagine themselves making the weird salute, or reciting the slogans (“Strength through discipline! Strength through action!” etc.) What was a more interesting similar experiment was the mid-western elementary school teacher, who after the assassination of MLK, jr., to her 2nd or 3rd graders, did a day of treating all brown-eyed children as second-class citizens, i.e, no once else could play with them, they had to line up last, if they got answers wrong it was pointed out to everyone else that the pupil had brown eyes. Then the very next day, the same treatment was given to blue-eyed students. The brown-eyes had no sympathy for them, and treated the blue eyes as poorly as they had been treated the day before. In the 1990s, Oprah staged a reunion show of both the original “test” pupils and their teacher. THAT was truly fascinating.

  6. Rick Shuey says:

    Fortunately, such a thing could not take place in our schools today. The original experiment was only possible because in 1967 schools and teachers had more liberty in the design and conduct of lessons. Now the Federal Government organizes, disciplines, and controls nearly everything that happens at the local campus level. We need have no anxiety about something like this happening./tongue-out-of-cheek

    • richard40 says:

      To Rick Shuey.
      Wrong, such a thing could happen today. The difference is it could not be right wing totalitarianism, but it could indeed be left wing totalitarianism. Look at the professor in missouri that was teaching a course in labor relations, that was based on a communist propoganda textbook, and taught students how to intimidate owners using illegal violent labor strife.

      • He was being ironic Richard.

        The giveaway is the last part of the post “/tongue-out-of-cheek” suggests that everything he said prior to that was “tongue in cheek” I.E. ironic and meant to be humorous.

        btw – nothing in the article or clip suggested the experiment had a “right wing” bent and there is a pretty good body of evidence that suggests the Nazi party was more left wing than right as well.

      • richard40 says:

        To Nolo Promittere:
        You are right, I wasn’t reading closely enough and didn’t notice that the comment I replied to was irony. Of course my reply is still true, that todays colleges would never permit any right wing totalitarian (unless they are Muslim), but routinely permit left wing totalitarians.

        Regarding whether the Nazis were right or left wing. The problem there is the left/right wing political spectrum. When you use a 2 dimensional spectrum, with gov control, vs individual freedom on one axis, and left vs right on the other it becomes clear. On that chart, fascism and communism both converge to the same spot, total gov control, and thus in their effects are almost identical to each other, instead of being polar opposites, as is commonly assumed. The only difference is the pole, left or right, that they start from to converge at totalitarianism. Communism and fascism are not opposites, merely rivals. Instead, libertarianism is the opposite of both.

      • Rich vail says:

        Hitler was a leftist/socialist. The proof is in the name of his political party:

        Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei.
        National Socialist German Workers’ Party (German abbreviation: NSDAP).

        I have a short exerpt here of an excellent paper by Australian professor John Ray:

        http://thevailspot.blogspot.com/2009/08/hitler-was-socialist.html

        http://ray-dox.blogspot.com/2006/08/this-article-is-published-on-internet.html

  7. richard40 says:

    If you want a realistic tale of how fascism could have come to america, read Harry Turtledove’s book series on an alternate american history, starting with How Few Remain. It is a long series, and you dont get to the fascist stuff until about the 5th book, but it is very realistic on how fascist methods could have succeeded in the US given the right conditions. For the fascist party in his book, the rallying cry was “Freedom” and the chosen hate target was black people.

  8. [...] Just as I’ve always said: This charismatic leftist (not Klansman or bigot or conservative), hoodwinked his students [...]

  9. [...] teacher, Ron Jones, decided to find out how easy it would be to turn students into totalitarians: Jones reorganized his classroom that week into a simulation of a prototypical fascist youth group. [...]

  10. theduchessofkitty says:

    They learned their lesson, all right!

    I read about this in junior high school, in a Scholastic magazine article (mid 1980s).

  11. maatkare says:

    This isn’t new at all–I remember the doc about the brown/blue eyed teacher very well. There were also various prison experiments where students played at being guards and prisoners; those being guards very quickly became brutal towards their ‘prisoners.’ There were the experiments with fake electric shocks where the shock giver became amazing callous very quickly to the screams of their ‘victims’ but followed orders anyway. The bottom line is, humans will descend into brutality very, very quickly.

    • richard40 says:

      To maatkare:
      The experiment with the electric shocks had an even more interesting second order effect. When some of the shockers started having anguish and distress when they continued to follow the experimentors and administer shocks to the “screaming victims”, some of the experimentors realized that they were getting just as callous and cruel as the shockers, when they ignored the aguished pleas of the persons being ordered to give the shocks, and continued to demand they continue. But in their case they knew they were causing real distress, to the shockers, instead of being deceived into thinking they were harming people, but they did not stop either.

  12. Patricia says:

    Ron Jones did write a short story about the ,and it’s true, movies were made here and in Germany, from his story. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1063669/

    So the one you saw on ABC was probably fro the original story. Neel tho was the first one to get the original students, at least some of them, back together to recollect. Some were obviously traumatized, some thought it was a joke–all very Rashomon.

    Like I said, I would like to know more about how they felt now or how it changed them. Especially how they feel about a left wing person leading the “movement.”

  13. teapartydoc says:

    I haven’t seen this mentioned in any of the other comments, so I will: The cover of the book Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg is a smiley face with a Hitler moustache. Fascism is a left wing phenomenon, in case you hadn’t noticed. It involves centralized control and control of economies and lives and is socialist at its roots. Both Hitler and Mussolini were socialists who simply desired to carry out their socialism in a nationalistic fashion, thus National Socialism.

  14. SB says:

    As were pre-Nazi Germans, so, too, have postwar Americans been formed in the mold of the West’s 2,000 year old ethics–with a bit of help from Plato (of course).

    ===

    “The best ordered state will be one in which the largest number of persons … most nearly resembles a single person. The first and highest form of the State … is a condition in which the private and the individual is altogether banished from life …” (Plato’s _Republic_ & _Laws_ c. 370 BCE)

    ===

    Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or will follow the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and ego.”

    ===

    “It is thus necessary that the individual should finally come to realize that his own ego is of no importance in comparison with the existence of his nation; that the position of the individual ego is conditioned solely by the interests of the nation as a whole … that above all the unity of a nation’s spirit and will are worth far more than the freedom of the spirit and will of an individual….”

    “This state of mind, which subordinates the interests of the ego to the conservation of the community, is really the first premise for every truly human culture…. The basic attitude from which such activity arises, we call-to distinguish it from egoism and selfishness-idealism. By this we understand only the individual’s capacity to make sacrifices for the community, for his fellow men.”

    “These statements were made in our century by the leader of a major Western nation. His countrymen regarded his view point as uncontroversial. His political program implemented it faithfully.

    “The statements were made by Adolf Hitler. He was explaining the moral philosophy of Nazism.

    “And here is the ultimate practice (as described by William Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich):

    “The gas chambers themselves [at Auschwitz] and the adjoining crematoria, viewed from a short distance, were not sinister-looking places at all; it was impossible to make them out for what they were. Over them were well-kept lawns with flower borders; the signs at the entrances merely said BATHS. The unsuspecting Jews thought they were simply being taken to the baths for the delousing which was customary at all camps. And taken to the accompaniment of sweet music!

    “For there was light music. An orchestra of ‘young and pretty girls all dressed in white blouses and navy-blue skirts,’ as one survivor remembered, had been formed from among the inmates. While the selection was being made for the gas chambers this unique musical ensemble played gay tunes from The Merry Widow and Tales of Hoffmann. Nothing solemn and somber from Beethoven. The death marches at Auschwitz were sprightly and merry tunes, straight out of Viennese and Parisian operetta.

    “To such music, recalling as it did happier and more frivolous times, the men, women and children were led into the ‘bath houses,’ where they were told to undress preparatory to taking a ’shower.’ Sometimes they were even given towels. “Once they were inside the ’shower-room’ — and perhaps this was the first moment that they may have suspected some thing was amiss, for as many as two thousand of them were packed into the chamber like sardines, making it difficult to take a bath — the massive door was slid shut, locked and hermetically sealed. Up above where the well-groomed lawn and flower beds almost concealed the mushroom-shaped lids of vents that ran up from the hall of death, orderlies stood ready to drop into them the amethyst-blue crystals of hydrogen cyanide….

    “Surviving prisoners watching from blocks nearby remembered how for a time the signal for the orderlies to pour the crystals down the vents was given by a Sergeant Moll. ‘Na, gib ihnen schon zu fressen’ (‘All right, give ‘em something to chew on’), he would laugh and the crystals would be poured through the openings, which were then sealed.

    “Through heavy-glass portholes the executioners could watch what happened. The naked prisoners below would be looking up at the showers from which no water spouted or perhaps at the floor wondering why there were no drains. It took some moments for the gas to have much effect. But soon the inmates became aware that it was issuing from the perforations in the vents. It was then that they usually panicked, crowding away from the pipes and finally stampeding toward the huge metal door where, as Reitlinger puts it, ‘they piled up in one blue clammy blood-spattered pyramid, clawing and mauling each other even in death.’ ”

    [...]

    Recommended reading: The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America, Leonard Peikoff; 1982.

    Aside: Note the rising altruist sympathy for Osama. Note the kid who is returning $100k made in sales of Osama “T” Shirts; crap, note a million events a day that comport with the suicide ethics of self-sacrifice.

  15. benson says:

    I think this was a good experiment but one which should never have been carried out in a class room. I really don’t care about fascism, left or right. It would be a miracle if this country could be (saved) effected by some movement like this to reverse the damage done to it by the left and right.

  16. [...] LESSON PLAN: “Note well, dear readers, that when fascism ever so briefly came to America, it did come with a smiley face.” [...]

  17. Vlad says:

    You people are weak children, and ARE the model people for joining cults like the nazis or obama. “i’m for change!”, and you all wet you pants with glee. Chopping peoples’ heads off in the town square is “change”…that what you want, retards? Obama says “I run the most transparent govt EVER!”…you all poop just a little with excitement, as he accepts a “transparency award” in a secret ceremony that overlooked that fact he sealed all records about his past. You ARE the little nazis RIGHT NOW!. You will rail against this post, rather than think about how you swallow bullsh.it hook, line and sinker. You make me sick.

  18. Mary Ann says:

    This is exactly the Saul Alinsky method, the method used by the left now. Left-fascism, which is the same as Stalinism, has taken over the media and the academy.

  19. Mark says:

    Just a quick note that the webpage for the movie is http://www.lessonplanmovie.com and the primary FAQ resource site for the story an its many iterations is http://www.thewavehome.com

  20. Fred Lieu says:

    I was reading something else about this on another blog. Interesting, your perspective on it is diametrically contradicted to what I read before. I am still reflecting over the various points of view, but I am inclined to a great extent toward yours. And no matter, that’s what is so superb about modern-day democracy and the marketplace of thoughts online.

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