High School Fascism Redux
December 28, 2008 2:57 AM   Subscribe

In 1981, ABC aired a program in daytime that, while pre-dating the After School Special format, was a moralist tale aimed at children. "The Wave" was based on the classroom experiments of Ron Jones, which at the time went largely undocumented and were primarily anecdotal. The Third Wave as he called it, fooled the children of his class into creating a fascististic movement within the school complete with symbolism and salutes.

Like "The Day After" before it [previously], The Wave [the whole 45 minute feature hosted at Google Video] became a piece of oft-compulsory viewing for many high school students. Ron Jones became infamous for his experiment, often coming under fire for playing with the minds of teenagers in such potentially harmful ways. And to many, it was just as disturbing in different ways. Proving how easy it is to manipulate young people into herd mentality and fascist thinking, the movie and experiment has proven timeless. A book based on the special was written, stage productions have been mounted, various other schools have attempted to re-create the experiment with varying degrees of success. Recently, a German production based on Jones' writings and experiment, "Die Welle" was released in March of this year and follows much the same plot. Though with the added intrigue of them being German students who don't believe that anyone could fall into such thinking in this day and age, they quickly fall into line with Die Welle and their salutes and marches. To this day it remains a frightening study in the potential of mass human cruelty.
posted by mediocre (46 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

On another note entirely, I miss Troutfishing.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 3:03 AM on December 28, 2008

FWIW, it was compulsory viewing for me as well at my Dutch high school. Thanks for posting this.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 3:03 AM on December 28, 2008

Damn it all to hell, I searched for like 10 minutes and didn't find this topic.. And only one of the links was used before, and that is related to The Day After..

So I am going to call this new. If the mods want to delete it, so be it..
posted by mediocre at 3:24 AM on December 28, 2008

In fairness to the OP, that previous post is more than five years old, and this one has some new material. I think it deserves a revisit.
posted by Rhaomi at 3:51 AM on December 28, 2008

Also: It's post #777777! You can't let it die, people!
posted by Rhaomi at 3:52 AM on December 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Supposedly some of the kids in that high school say the whole that the whole thing is way over-exaggerated and that the actual program consisted of a few activities and really didn't affect much outside of the one class.
posted by delmoi at 3:52 AM on December 28, 2008

delmoi: They are traitors to The Wave and must not be trusted.
posted by cthuljew at 4:22 AM on December 28, 2008 [13 favorites]

Rhaomi writes "In fairness to the OP"

Fairness has nothing to do with the needs of the State. Our Great Leader will delete this post made by saboteurs and enemies of the people!
posted by orthogonality at 4:36 AM on December 28, 2008

Just to pour salt in an already open wound, After School Specials were around well before 1981.
posted by doctor_negative at 4:44 AM on December 28, 2008

I remember watching it in school here in Norway as well.
posted by Harald74 at 4:50 AM on December 28, 2008

Okay, that's a glaring mistake on my part. I read on one page that The Wave pre-dated the After School Special format and title, but then linked to a page that directly contradicts that.. Still, I think this is a worthy topic. Especially since I can link to the 45 minute special itself, unlike the original topic.
posted by mediocre at 5:23 AM on December 28, 2008

Anyway: Kids are a bunch of Nazis, yes?
posted by Grangousier at 5:33 AM on December 28, 2008

When I was a cub-scout we chanted gibberish at a stuffed wolf's head on a stick while wearing pseudo-military costumes with strict dress requirement (sock seams had to line up with the tongue of sock garters, scarves had to be tied just so, etc...). We learned militaristic survival skills, naval knot tying techniques and bow-stern-starboard-port directions. Then as a reward we got to pummel each other playing murder ball.

So what is the point of his experiment? That kids will play along?
posted by srboisvert at 6:21 AM on December 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

Reductio ad absurdum
posted by mediocre at 6:33 AM on December 28, 2008

I remember we had to stand and pay respect to the flag of our republic with a kind of salute, and chant a homage to it every day in unison. Very weird times.
posted by crapmatic at 6:38 AM on December 28, 2008 [14 favorites]

The Wave, much like The Giver, was one of those odd bits of school-teaching that had somehow eluded me until I began to tutor. "How the heck did this not make it to my school?" was something that kept appearing in my mind, then I stopped, paused for a second, and said, "Oh, yeah."

Anything which points out that the basic operating system humans come with has a bunch of glaring exploits that civilization just never seems to get around to patching is probably going to make some kids think, "Gee, I wonder if that's because it's really convenient to have this trait in people always handy" and we certainly can't have that kind of thinking, can we?

The point of The Wave wasn't that kids will play along, it's that humans as a whole seem to have some very unpleasant strange attractors in their psyches and will cheerfully re-enact some of the most cruel portions of history, even while studying the same history and saying, "Oh no, we'd never do that," if given just a nudge and a seed crystal of fascism around which to form, if you'll allow me to mix various physics metaphors.

Throw in some Stanford and Milgram experiments (trite, but just as necessary as sugar and a pinch of salt), and it's clear that one of the best attack vectors is through authority. And, as such, it will never be a priority to try to train children, teenagers, and adults to resist these tendencies.
posted by adipocere at 6:38 AM on December 28, 2008 [6 favorites]

Wait, this guy needed something in addition to the standard American high school setting to make teenagers into fascists?
posted by Legomancer at 6:53 AM on December 28, 2008 [8 favorites]

It's actually kinda preposterous, when you look into it. Haven't seen the special, but I read the book (and in a bit of irony, the venue was Cubberly High School, now used as a satellite campus for Foothill College, and I'm there Monday and Wednesday evenings for Japanese class). I thought the story was bogus -- not for the kids acting Fascist, that wasn't at all surprising. It's the ending, when the teacher shows a photo of Hitler, and like that [snaps fingers] the kids realize their error and amend their ways. I don't believe late-60s kids had any understanding of the details of the Nazi time. (I was in Jr High then, and all we knew of it was TV shows like "Hogan's Heroes" and movies like "The Longest Day" and "The Great Escape".) Jews? Kristalnacht? HJ? Death Camps? These didn't become well known until a decade later, when the Holocaust mini-series gave that era the convenient handle we still use today. That was when young people began studying National Socialism, and learned why Hitler was bad -- before, it wasn't well known, what went down in Germany.
posted by Rash at 7:17 AM on December 28, 2008

And now, the fascists minted at that school are referred to as "Apple Enthusiasts".
posted by mattholomew at 7:31 AM on December 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

And now, the fascists minted at that school are referred to as "Apple Enthusiasts".
posted by mattholomew

Ha ha ha ha! Get it? They're like fascists? You know, with their genocidal racism and contempt for democracy and human rights? Just like Fascists! Get it? Get it?
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 7:42 AM on December 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

This story seems exagerated. Since we have no objective source and the researcher is clearly biased towards his conclusions I suspect the scope and reach of the wave has been overstated. Also where was the school administration or parent phone calls. Really every kid starts walking around like a Nazi and no other teacher raises a complaint and no parent calls the administration? Even in 1967 we had PTA and school boards.
posted by humanfont at 8:05 AM on December 28, 2008

When I was a cub-scout we chanted gibberish at a stuffed wolf's head on a stick

Mine was different, but I was a cub scout, not a lord of the flies scout.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:19 AM on December 28, 2008 [5 favorites]

I first read about this in The Next Whole Earth Catalog - which presented it as uncontested fact. Then again, it did the same for "The Man Who Planted Trees".
posted by Joe Beese at 8:22 AM on December 28, 2008

Anyone know if any of the students who were the basis for this book have written anything about it?
posted by blaneyphoto at 8:42 AM on December 28, 2008

I don't believe late-60s kids had any understanding of the details of the Nazi time. (I was in Jr High then, and all we knew of it was TV shows like "Hogan's Heroes" and movies like "The Longest Day" and "The Great Escape".) Jews? Kristalnacht? HJ? Death Camps? These didn't become well known until a decade later, when the Holocaust mini-series gave that era the convenient handle we still use today.

Rash, could you maybe expound on that?
It's not at all, by the way, that I don't believe you. It's just the first time I've heard that (born in '74) and think that's a fascinating take on something that I thought I had a pretty good grasp on.
I went googling around after reading your post and couldn't find much.
Or maybe any other MeFites that were around at that time could maybe expand on it?
It sounds terribly interesting that it took 3+ decades for something so huge to come to light.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 11:18 AM on December 28, 2008

And Rash, it's not like late-60s kids had relatives who had been in the war, and there weren't loud and long debates about Vietnam versus ridding the world of Hitler.

Guessing late-60s kids had a real clear understanding of "Nazi time." If nothing else, they had Anne Frank - at least the girls did. Either you weren't paying attention or you're not remembering correctly. There was a book, a play (huge), a movie (which did very well and put the back in pretty much print forever) and, you know, people did know what happened to that girl.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:30 AM on December 28, 2008

BTW, rereading my own post there it seems like it could possibly be read in a snarky tone.
Let me just reiterate that that is not at all my intent.
I am actually, genuinely curious.
Personally, it really grates on me when people throw out thinly-veiled sarcastisnark on the blue under guise of dialogue.
It's right behind beginning a post with "Um......" amongst obnoxious ways to get a point across.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 11:38 AM on December 28, 2008

You know, when I read The Wave, I didn't even know that it was supposed to be based on real events. It shouldn't really matter much. The point of the book was clear, and rang especially true to my socially-outcast highschool sophomore mind.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:40 AM on December 28, 2008

rash: uh, i was born in '65, and i'm pretty sure the holocaust was pretty well known among US schoolchildren before 1978. i mean, on the one hand, i'm a gentile, and on the other hand, i grew up behind a jewish temple, but, yeah. death camps. numbers tattoo'd on arms. trials at nuremburg. the search for eichmann.

hell, "the great dictator" and "diary of anne frank", if nothing else.

although the miniseries did give me a huge crush on Tovah Feldshuh.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:49 AM on December 28, 2008

I was born in '65, too, and I'm with Rash. Most of my classmates had no idea who Hitler was except in the vaguest of ways. We had a unit on Nazi Germany in 7th grade that started with the teacher, on the first day of class, dressing as a member of the SS. The "reward" for scoring highest on tests and homework was to be called the "head Nazi." While we saw a few of the infamous pictures from the concentration camp liberations, it didn't seem to really have much of an impact on my classmates.

I watched "The Wave" the first time it aired. I thought it silly. Adults didn't know that you could lead teens into fascist behaviour? Guess they hadn't been to a pep rally or even watched teens interacting much. Or read their history.
posted by QIbHom at 1:11 PM on December 28, 2008

Okay, some more. I'm from what was a lily-white suburb of Washington DC, no black people in elementary school, then only a few in Jr High. In my elementary school classe, the only minorities were a few Jewish guys, plus the Catholics. Although my father didn't go into the army until 1946, sure, I knew of a few whose fathers had WWII stories from the ETO, but theirs were all about the Normandy Invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. Also my fifth grade teacher, who'd tell us stories about his time in Italy.

I never heard about any oppression in the old country until my own interest in the Nazi time began, after my 12th grade physics teacher showed us "Judgment in Nuremburg" in 1972, shortly before graduation. As far as I know, this screening didn't trigger any special interest in anybody else. At about the same time, I found a copy of Kozinski's Painted Bird... other WWII books I'd read by that time included stuff like The Dirty Dozen and Catch-22 although I do remember one of the afore-mentioned Jewish guys reading Treblinka (but he never discussed it with me).

Another point of enlightenment (for me) was reading Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, and seeing the great movie, but that was the mid-70s. Related -- my high school German teacher, but her stories only involved being sheltered during the Allied bombing of her home town of Kassel when she was just a girl.

So even though I'm somewhat of an expert on the subject now, must confess that I never heard of Anne Frank until the late 70s. Can't find any ready links on the topic but I've heard about how when the troops came home, they just wanted to forget about the war horrors, and move on, so the Shoah wasn't discussed. In fact I think this is The Greatest Generation's great failing, that yes, they fought the war, and won, but weren't clear about the nature of the enemy (who was just caricatures: strutting Nazis, and don't forget the stinking Nips, who started it) and are now ignorant of and silent about creeping fascism in America today. All their children got were the flight-crew/soldier-adventure stories, which we saw also in the multitude of 60s war movies and TV shows, some of which I've mentioned above. It wasn't until several years after the time of The Wave (1968) that details of life inside the Third Reich became well known, at least to teen-aged America.
posted by Rash at 4:16 PM on December 28, 2008

mediocre, I had the same urge to make a post about this but chickened out when I checked the archives. Good for you for going through with it.

Now, Strength Through Discipline!
posted by fungible at 4:34 PM on December 28, 2008

Somewhat related :

Did anybody else see Eye of the Storm, or its sequel, A Class Divided?

In the late 60s, an elementry school teacher named Jane Elliott divided up her class between blue-eyed kids and brown-eyed kids. She then effectively segregated the class, giving the "browneyes" special privileges, and publicly disparaging the "blueyes." The "blueyes" and "browneyes" were not allowed to drink from the same water fountains. The kids were told, in no uncertain terms, that they "blueyes" were inferior.

The results were somewhat predictable - the "browneyes" became arrogant, dominant, and started to achieve higher math scores. The "blueyes," however, suffered both academically and socially. This went on for a week.

The following week, she reversed it - now, the "blueyes" were superior, and the "browneyes" were inferior. The results were similar to the previous week, but "less intense" then it had been the week before.

A the outset, she had explained that the exercise would teach the children what it was like to be black. At the end of the experiment, all of the children cried and hugged and wrote letters to Coretta Scott King.

Apparently, one of Elliott's reasons for carrying out the experiment was that, in her small corner of Iowa, many of the kids had never met a black person. Finally, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King spurred her into action.

It's a pretty intriguing experiment, and probably could be the subject of an FPP in-and-of-itself.
posted by Afroblanco at 4:41 PM on December 28, 2008

It's all about marketing.


I remember a parish priest giving a sermon which involved him asking questions, nothing too esoteric, and having anyone matching that question stand up. At the end, everyone was standing. His point was that, despite our differences, we were still one congregation.

Once you've found those common threads, you can use those to show your target group that they are not alone in the bad, bad, cold world. Once they realize that, the biggest hurdle is over, most times, and you can start planning what to do with that group.

On a completely unrelated aside, I remember dating a Polish girl (letting her go is one of the greatest regrets of my life, BTW). Her father had been in one of the camps and had escaped. One night, after a traditional Polish dinner for the new boyfriend (her family and mine were old friends), he told me some stories. Let's just say I don't eat boiled cabbage any more.
posted by Samizdata at 4:48 PM on December 28, 2008

Rash et al, I was born in 1956. I watched Nacht und Nebel as a 5th grader in Havertown PA (suburban Philly) in 1965 at school. I absolutely was completely aware of what Nazis were, what fascism was, who Hitler was, what happened to European Jews and gays, as well as to the Rom (although we called them gypsies) and the Poles. I knew about concentration camps. I also learned about the culpability of the German people, but not as an object lesson about how a dangerous political movement can overcome peoples' basic decency; rather as an example of how Americans would never let that happen here because we were basically decent, unlike those evil Germans. What I didn't learn about in school was the civil rights abuses going on pretty much under my nose or my own culpability as a member of the oppressing majority.

Ask what is going on around you, even when what is going on around looks okay. If you get hit in the face for asking, ask again. Teach your children to ask. Let your neighbors know that you will ask. Let your boss know. And then ask again.
posted by nax at 5:32 PM on December 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Was I the only one that thought the creepy kid (Robert?) was going to reappear in "The Wave 2: Columbine"?
posted by hanoixan at 6:57 PM on December 28, 2008

This site has some excellent debunking of Ron Jones's version of The Wave by some former students of Cubberley High School, including scans of relevant pages from the school newspaper when the Wave was taking place. It turns out that some students founded an anti-Wave group called The Breakers, which suggests that the Ron Jones tale of suburban conformism isn't what it's cracked up to be.
posted by jonp72 at 7:39 PM on December 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

"This is a fact: blue eyed people are brown eyes people."

This falls under lies we tell kills? I'm sure, in the third grade I would have sucked into this, but damn would I have felt betrayed afterwards. I was bitter enough about that "sugar and spice and all things nice" and "Snips and snails, and puppy-dogs' tails" bullshit. (Yes, I'm looking at you Mrs Stockholm).

"I watched what had been marvellous, co-operative, wonderful thoughtful children, turn into nasty vicious, discriminating, little third graders, in the space of fifteen minutes."

Personally I think you took children, who at that age are nasty and vicious at least some of the time regardless, and gave them a new target. The fat kids, the kids with a lisp, the kids with braces, the poor kids with the patched clothes, the kids with glasses, the kids with the bowl haircut their mum gave them, would probably have been grateful to have the heat taken off them for a bit.

For the kids actually in the class, hopefully this opened their eyes to how hurtful "us and them" can be to children who were used to being the "us". But I'm not sure what this tells the rest of us about anything. Hmm... perhaps there's something in the fact that labelling some of them as "them" was a self forefilling prophesy.
posted by adamt at 7:59 PM on December 28, 2008

Feck, that comment was meant to go in the 'eye of the storm' thread.
posted by adamt at 8:07 PM on December 28, 2008

That's okay adamt. It works pretty well here too.
posted by nax at 4:35 AM on December 29, 2008

Didn't know about the Nazis? I certainly did. In 1969, in 7th grade, I watched bulldozers pushing emaciated bodies into mass graves, and my teacher announced, "THIS is the result of racism as a national policy". (God bless you, Mr. Easton, wherever you are).

Talk about impact. Lesson struck home, and thinking about it still makes me cry, mostly in a good way. Good way, because it was taught. Good, because I will never forget the gravity of the lesson, nor that the teacher was in fact giving one of the most profound lessons of my life, and he knew it. There was proof positive, in my young life, that the profound does exist, and can even come in an ordinary classroom.

Racism = Death
posted by Goofyy at 6:10 AM on December 29, 2008

Great link, jonp72.
posted by Rash at 6:23 AM on December 29, 2008

I remember hating 8th grade English but I distinctly remember somewhat enjoying "The Wave" (I believe we read it before or after "The Diary of Anne Frank"). I remember my teacher telling us how there was an after school special of it that she was going to show us but she never did. Now I can watch it finally.
posted by champthom at 12:21 PM on December 29, 2008

So what is the point of his experiment? That kids will play along?

I probably saw this movie's premier run on TV. I was a bit younger than the protagonists.

My memories are simply:

** Pretty bloody good movie.
** One kid looked like a dead-set goose at the end. A nerdish type who otherwise would have had trouble fitting in. Think: tubby Goebbels. [but I could be completely wrong here – it was a long time ago]

But yeah, I wasn’t exactly more wary of the herd mentality, if that was supposed to be the message. I think I was too young to care. Like srboisvert, I took part in a few gibberish chanting clubs and groups after this movie. Right up to my beer swilling, stupid song singing Rugby Union days in my early 20s. [hangs head in shame]
posted by uncanny hengeman at 4:01 PM on December 29, 2008

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