Article about the 1967 experiment in Cubberley High School, California, in which a teacher created a proto-fascist movement which got out of hand. The experience was dramatised in 2008 film The Wave.
Peninsula, September 1991
Although the specter of fascist resurgence seems largely forgotten in the euphoria of German reunification, it may not be far beneath the peaceful veneer of that nation, or any other, for that matter. Even the most ostensibly free and open societies are not immune to fascism's lure - including places like Palo Alto.
What came to be known as the "Third Wave" began at Cubberly High School in Palo Alto as a game without any direct reference to Nazi Germany, says Ron Jones, who had just begun his first teaching job in the 1966-67 academic year. When a social studies student asked about the German public's responsibility for the rise of the Third Reich, Jones decided to try and simulate what happened in Germany by having his students "basically follow instructions" for a day.
But one day turned into five, and what happened by the end of the school week spawned several documentaries, studies and related social experiments illuminating a dark side of human nature - and a major weakness in public education.
Before students arrived for class on Monday, Jones vigorously cleaned his classroom and arranged the desks in unusually straight rows. He dimmed the lights and played Wagnerian music as students drifted in for class. Then Jones, a popular instructor who normally avoided even such regimentation as taking roll, told his students that he could give them the keys to power and success - "Strength Through Discipline."
"It was thoroughly out of character for Ron Jones to say "Let's help the class out with a little more discipline," recalls a former student Philip Neel, now a television producer in Los Angeles. But because Jones was an interesting teacher, the class went along.
Classmate Mark Hancock remembers Jones adding a political cast and a set of incentives soon thereafter. "It was something like, if you're a good party member and play the game well, you can get an A. If you have a revolution and fail, you get an F. For a successful revolution, you get an A," recounts Hancock, currently a regional development director for a Los Angeles property company.
Jones next commanded the class to assume a new seating posture to strengthen student concentration and will: feet flat on the floor, hands across the small of the back, spines straight. And he added speed drills, after which the entire group could move from loitering outside the room to silent, seated attention in less than 30 seconds.
"Even when we started with Strength Through Discipline, it was easy for me to see the benefits of the posture," remarks Steve Coniglio, who now helps run a Truckee retail store. "Even on that very first day, I could notice that I was breathing better. I was more attentive in class."
Jones closed the first day's session with a few rules. Students had to be sitting at attention before the second bell, had to stand up to ask or answer questions and had to do it in three words or less, and were required to preface each remark with "Mr. Jones."
"At the end of that day, I was grandly happy. I mean, it seemed to work and everyone seemed to get into it," Jones still marvels. Grades were based on participation, and no one accepted the study hall alternative that Jones offered prior to commencing the exercise that day. But neither did anyone make a connection to the German history lessons they'd just completed. "Most of us were headed toward college," says Hancock. "It wasn't Nazi German life that mattered, it was Palo Alto grades."
Jones says he assumed the class would return to its usual format the next day. "But when I came in, the class was all sitting..." His voice trails off as his body snaps to military attention.
Jones considered calling a halt, but then went to the blackboard and wrote "Strength Through Community" below the previous day's slogan, "Strength Through Discipline."
"I began to lecture on community - something bigger than oneself, something enjoyable. They really bought that argument," Jones recalls.
A powerful sense of belonging had sprung up among lowly sophomores at the bottom of the rung of the three-year school, and Jones admits he soon became a part of the exercise as well as its leader.
"It was really a mistake, a terrible thing to do. My curiosity pulled me in at first, and then I liked it. They learned fast, didn't ask questions. It was easier as a teacher."
As his Strength Through Community lecture ended, he created a class salute by bringing his right hand toward his right shoulder in an outwardly curled position, resembling a wave. Jones named it the Third Wave, and - despite its similarity to Third Reich - claims he borrowed the term from beach folklore, which holds that the last wave in every series of three is the largest.
Students acknowledging each other this way in the halls attracted the attention of upper classmen, who clamored to know the salute's significance, Coniglio says. Cubberley students began skipping their regular classes, asking to be part of the Third Wave. In three days Jones' class had expanded to 60 students.
After telling the enlarged class that "strength is fine, now you must act," Jones assigned everyone a task to be completed that day. Some were to memorize the names and addresses of everyone in the group; others were to make Third Wave banners, armbands and membership cards. And since that day's theme was "Strength Through Action," everyone was to proselytize.
By day's end Coniglio says banners were all over the school, including a 20 footer in the library. Members brought in some 200 converts from other classes to be "sworn in."
"It just swept through the school," recalls Jones, who is still teaching, now at the San Francisco Recreation Center for the Handicapped. "It was like walking on slippery rock...by the third or fourth day, there was an obvious explosion of emotion that I couldn't control."
Several boys were assigned to "protect" Jones as he walked the school's corridors, wearing Third Wave armbands to signify their responsibility.
"It was a black band. When I went home, it got my parents worried," says Steve Benson, now a Palo Alto mechanic. "They thought it was the equivalent of the SS." Although his mother called Jones to express her concern, the teacher reassured her it was merely a class exercise.
Everyone involved in the Third Wave received a membership card, three of which Jones randomly marked with an X. Those holding the marked cards were told to note who transgressed class rules, which now dictated such matters as what campus paths members could walk and with whom they could associate.
"There were three or four stoolies," Jones explains bluntly. "I wanted to see how this was being taken outside of class."
By the end of four days, approximately half the class had approached Jones with detailed information about the transgressions of others, ranging from improper salutes to coup plots against him.
"It was phenomenal. There was a whole underground of activity. People were assigning themselves as guards," Jones says. "I knew exactly what was going on in class because of this strange snitching that was going on."
There was betrayal among teens who had been close friends since childhood. A group of buddies could be sharing a cigarette in the bathroom, discussing a plan to "kidnap" Jones the next day and fulfill the exercise's requirement for a top grade, but "it wouldn't happen," say Coniglio. "Somebody - one of those two or three - would inform Ron Jones of the plot."
This is exactly what happened to Hancock, who told several friends he had bought a cap pistol to school to earn an A with mock assassination. Jones gave him a stern look in class while reminding the group of the penalties for disloyalty; Hancock dropped the ideas and to this day cannot identify his betrayer.
"Jones was able to stop a lot of lines of communication between people. That's how he made his power. He was keeping us under his thumb very effectively," say Hancock.
Jones also selected an official but anonymous "secret police" group to help enforce Third Wave rules in and out of school. These students enjoyed the assistance of a tough, leather-jacketed campus car club known as The Executors, who had been attracted to the Third Wave. Both groups - along with regular Third Wave members - denounced their classmates for a raft of real and imagined transgressions.
"The paranoia was really strange," Coniglio says. "People were finking, and you had to make your own choice that way - whether you would tell."
In addition to the names supplied by student enforcers, Jones would also pull "indictments" from his shirt pocket - slips of paper from which he would then read names and alleged offenses, Hancock says.
No matter who fingered them, the accused stood immediately. A few were let off, but many were convicted by a class shouting, "Guilty!" and sent into library exile. Mistrust blossomed even there. Hancock recalls an acquaintance later telling him she thought he'd turned her in because she was "caught" a day after they had a brief, innocuous conversation.
Hancock subsequently asked Jones about the indictments, only to learn the accusations were usually fabricated. "Not only did he cause us to convict our peers, he'd just pick a name and get 'em convicted," say Hancock. "As long as that level of fear was there, the system was working."
Adding to the ferment was the dawn of antiwar activism. Third Wave meeting announcements and instructions on daily activity were read over the P.A. system, regularly followed by calls for revolution or radical social change. The polar extremes only added to the confusion of the teens, from many of whom a Vietnam draft call was looming.
"You were either radical or you weren't. You couldn't be in the middle. Perhaps we were ready to be molded," Coniglio shrugs. "We were caught between extremes that were getting all the attention."
Something of an underground existed within the Third Wave, but Hancock says it had as much effect as protesting against the Nazi regime in Germany.
One of the underground's main problems was that Jones kept changing the rules established early in the experiment, and simply ignored several attempts at the revolution whose perpetrators had been promised an A. Hancock says some desperate conspirators even considered a mass "hit" with Mattel machine guns concealed in lunch bags, but Jones got wind of it and rescheduled the student assembly at which the assassination was to have taken place.
By the fifth day, the sheer volume of student migration to Jones' class was disrupting normal school routines and raised his concern that matters had gotten out of control.
Besides reports about students who failed to salute properly, Jones received word that three of the exercise's biggest skeptics were about to get beaten up. All three had told their parents about the Third Wave; one family's rabbi even called Jones at home with questions, but accepted Jones' vague answers without delving too deeply.
"I was hoping he would come in with a tremendous amount of rage," say Jones. "I kept hoping someone would walk in and ask what was going on, so I could point to them and say, 'That's right, look what you're doing, you've become just like fascists' and end it. But it didn't happen."
Some parents did warn their children not to attend the class, which only reinforced student desires to participate, says Coniglio.
For his part, Jones easily disposed of the few polite parent inquiries by describing the Third Wave as a class exercise. Even teachers at the school did not question it while it was going on, he notes.
Jones decided he had to end the experiment immediately, but without losing the point of the lesson. He had the three skeptics escorted to the library for their own safety, and then told those remaining that the Third Wave was more than an exercise, that it was more than just a game.
In fact, Jones said, they were a local cell of a select youth movement recruiting students nationwide. More than 1,000 such groups would rise up during a special noon rally that day to support a national presidential candidate, one who would announce a Third Wave Youth Program to bring the country "a new sense of order, community, pride and action."
By noon, students were crammed into the lecture hall, backs ramrod straight, eyes riveted to a television set in the front of the room. With the car club toughs guarding the door, Jones led the group in chants and salutes for the benefit of several friends he had posing as reporters and photographers.
Then Jones dimmed the lights, snapped the television set on and left the room.
Students waited with rapt attention for a vision of the future, but the screen stayed blank.
"Everybody's eyes began to go like this," Hancock says, darting his eyes frantically from side to side. After looking around a few minutes, Hancock says he realized in a daze that "there weren't any bodyguards, there wasn't any Jones. We were all just sitting at discipline."
For Coniglio, the gray faces staring at the gray screen triggered his most potent image of World War II - the gas chambers.
"I thought, 'My God, we're all dead." He yelled, "I'm getting out of here," and ran for the back doors, which he thought would be locked like in the concentration camp ovens. But the doors opened, and Coniglio was surprised to encounter a normal spring day at lunch hour. "Music was coming from the quad, flowers were blooming and a warm breeze was blowing."
Back inside, Jones returned to shut off the television and take a position at a microphone on stage, while a movie montage of World War II scenes flashed onto a large screen behind him.
"There is no Third Wave movement, no leader," he told the stunned audience. "You and I are no better or worse than the citizens of the Third Reich. We would have worked in the defense plants. We will watch our neighbors be taken away, and do nothing," Jones said, referring to the three skeptics exiled to the library for the crime of disbelief. "We're just like those Germans. We would give our freedom up for the chance of being special."
Neel remembers that "everybody just sat there a long time. Then everyone went their own way. No one wanted to talk about it. I think I remember a couple of people sitting there, not moving."
"Nazi is always a dirty word when you're growing up, but when you get hit with it, that you've become one, it's a very shocking statement."
Several students were crying. Barbara Miller Moore, a Third Wave member who did not attend the rally, recalls seeing several people walking away in shock. "Steve was pale," she remembers of Coniglio. "I was worried about him. He as always exceptionally sensitive. I didn't know what would happen to him."
The salutes ended with the rally; membership cards turned to litter and attention to Vietnam. But memories of the one-week experiment remain strong 25 years later.
"It hurts so much when I realized I'd been so fooled, but then, that was the lesson," remarks Coniglio. Upon subsequent reflection, he says he realized "it was one of the most valuable lessons I've ever had in my life. How often are you - as a 16 year old- not only able to learn about history, but to participate in it?"
Although Neel remembers feeling frightened before the rally a the thought of linking up with a national movement, he says peer pressure overcame his doubts, along with his regard for Jones and the climate of the times.
"A big reason I went along with it was my trust for Jones," Neel says. Moveover, he "was just beginning to feel bitter about Vietnam, and part of the experiment seemed like we could change the government responsible for hurting us. There was a feeling something really remarkable was going to happen, going on throughout the country - that the movement was going to change politics, change the structure of school. The combination of everything made it happen, and boy, did it happen."
For student Alyssa Hess Reit, the conclusion of the Third Wave experiment led to some heartfelt compassion and empathy for the Germans. "It seemed very clear that if a bunch of high school students from Palo Alto who had everything - nothing to lose - could be so easily pulled in, knowing it was just a game, it was clear what it must've been like for real people losing jobs and families," she says. "That's not to say there weren't ways to resist or that they couldn't, but we didn't even know how to go about it."
Reit says she knows of no one who was damaged by the Third Wave. Jones "helped wake us up, and I've always been grateful," she comments. "Good experiences aren't necessarily pleasant. I've often thought about it, and I'm glad I had it. I would want my kids to have it."
Many parents also supported Jones and the exercise, regardless of whether they had children involved. They went to bat for him two years later, when he was denied tenure for reasons ostensibly unrelated to the Third Wave.
"Jones was an outstanding and creative teacher whose principal effort was to teach children to think for themselves," says Joseph Pickering, an interested parent. "Jones had excellent character and the highest motives."
The experiment generated a great deal of debate among Jones' fellow teachers, however, with several arguing it was not his place to expose students to such emotional wrenching.
"To a certain extent, they were right," Jones agrees, although he considers any negative impacts to have been temporary and the risks worthwhile.
Bernard Oliver, president of the school board that denied Jones tenure, objected to Jones' teaching style for different reasons.
"We were upset with his performance largely because the subject matter was not being taught. If you weren't concerned about basic values, his teaching was OK. It's easy to load up classes with excitement, things kids like. While this impresses many parents, it can also be one-sided and far removed from traditional values," Oliver adds.
Jones' Third Wave also caught the attention of Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo, whose famous prison experiment several years later resulted in college students lapsing into sadism and eventual emotional breakdown after being assigned the role of guard in prison.
"Situations exert much more influence over human behavior than people acknowledge," explains Zimbardo, who has invited Jones to speak to classes many times.
Although the tendency runs counter to Western ideas of individual responsibility, Zimbardo points to two real-life incidents to prove his point - the U.S. massacre of civilians at My Lai, and postwar tests conducted on concentration camp guards that revealed no subsequent propensity for violence.
"It's an unpleasant message people don't like to hear. But unless you're aware of the vulnerability, you don't recognize how easy it is for simulation to become reality, for the uniform to dominate the person."
Third Wave veterans agree.
"When he started rewarding people, I could see how that goes a long way toward influencing them," Neel says. "I could see how people would be susceptible to that kind of behavior and would go along with it. You want to please your teachers, your peers and you don't want to fail."
Although Jones says he would never repeat the Third Wave, he insists it could easily happen today, anywhere in the United States, for a variety of reasons.
"Fascism is always a possibility because it's so simple and people are frustrated. They lose their jobs, their dignity, their sense of worth, and someone comes along and says, "I've got the answer."
School systems prepare the ground, Jones says by using only standardized tests for success and failing to recognize alternative paths of learning, as well as a wider variety of individual achievements.
Educational institutions weed out troublemakers and those who are difficult to teach, he contends, rewarding placid students who want to succeed at any cost and will accept authority.
"That's the sad thing. Teachers can trigger it by telling students they're special, they're part of a community, that they can do special things. All they have to give is their loyalty," Jones concludes. "It happens every day in school, only the paraphernalia isn't there. Kids aren't learning to ask questions. You create a population where freedom's just a spelling word."