April 1967. Standing in a classroom of Cubberley High School (Palo Alto, California), World History teacher Ron Jones was giving a class about Nazi Germany when a student suddenly raised his hand.
He asked about how could the German people not have realized Hitler’s plan for the “Final Solution”. Indeed, at the time, the extermination of the Jewish people was conducted on a routine, almost day-to-day basis; it required facilities, transport networks, military support; how could have the locals ignored the daily massacre that was going on?
Ron admitted he did not know the answer. Nevertheless, he decided he would conduct a week-long experiment aimed at showing how could things had escalated that way with no one really noticing it. The next Monday, he was ready to go on stage.
That day, Ron put the emphasis on discipline. He used the example of athletes who were performing well through meticulous, careful body and mindset training. A seating posture was practiced by the whole class. The classroom got more silent and concentrated. Students had to sit properly, talk in a respectful manner, use a limited number of words and the formal “Mr. Jones” when addressing their history teacher. Slowly but surely, general involvement seemed to improve: usually shy and reserved students started to ask questions.
On Tuesday, Ron entered a classroom where one could hear the sound of silence. All students were correctly seated, paying attention. All the available pairs of eyes followed Ron as he was leading his way to the blackboard, where he wrote “Strength through discipline” and, below, “Strength through community”. Ron had it repeated by a student, then some of them, then the entire class. He insisted using examples emphasizing the power of the group over any individual’s.
He decided then to name their newly-created community The Third Wave, and introduced a salute mimicking a wave breaking on the shore. Towards the end of the session, he asked his students to greet each other with this gesture, even outside the classroom. A silent but general crashing wave ended the class on that day. Ron could feel his students’ excitement.
Wednesday’s class was entitled “Strength through action”. The word (or the wave salute) had probably been widespread through the high school halls, as thirteen new students attended. Ron began by dealing membership cards among them, with some marked with a red “X”. Students who received it were responsible for denouncing whoever did not comply to the established rules of the experiment.
Then, Ron assigned direct tasks to his students. “You have to design a Third Wave banner”. “I want you to remember and be able to recite by tomorrow the name and address of every Third Wave Member.” And so on and so forth. Rules to integrate new members were discussed.
Although only a few students had been dealt the red X card, numerous came to Mr. Jones in order to denounce inapropriate behavior from some others.
A solitary, average student named Robert asked Mr. Jones to be his bodyguard. From that point on, the authoritarian history teacher was opened up doors for him, and silently watched drinking his coffee.
On Tuesday, Ron knew the experiment was getting out of control. He’d have liked to stop it. But on the other hand he was afraid to do so, because it would be synonymous with giving up and not conducting the experiment until its rational, learning purpose. They were already too much involved into it. Students like Robert, who had found equal opportunity and belonging to a community in this very classroom would feel abandoned. As Ron wrote later on, “I couldn’t let the Roberts lose again.”
He informed the whole class, sitting in close ranks, that The Third Wave movement was not only conducted in this high school, but in several others nationwide, and that a national rally would be held at noon the next day. “The Third Wave isn’t just an experiment or classroom activity. It’s far more important than that. The Third Wave is a nationwide program to find students who are willing to fight for political change in this country. That’s right. This activity we have been doing has been practice for the real thing. Across the country teachers like myself have been recruiting and training a youth brigade capable of showing the nation a better society through discipline, community, pride, and action.”
The students were told to gather at the school’s auditorium on Friday, 12:00.
On Friday, numerous students showed up earlier. They sat silently in the auditorium, banners popping up among their ranks. The wide diversity of high school profiles saluting each other with respect, from the most popular to the invisible, from the brightest to the most struggling students.
The heterogeneous audience waited until Ron turned the screen on.
Blank screen. For two minutes that lasted forever.
Then Mr. Jones slowly made his way on stage, and announced there was no rally, that all was an experiment, and that going that far into it was the proof that Nazi Germany could be more than a distant, isolated example. That it could still be. “This is the final lesson to be experienced. This last lesson is perhaps the one of greatest importance. This lesson was the question that started our plunge in studying Nazi life. Do you remember the question? It concerned a bewilderment at the German populace claiming ignorance and non-involvement in the Nazi movement. […] What causes people to blank out their own history?”
“If our enactment of the Fascist mentality is complete, not one of you will ever admit to being at this final Third Wave rally. Like the Germans, you will have trouble admitting to yourself that you come this far. You will not allow your friends and parents to know that you were willing to give up individual freedom and power for the dictates of order and unseen leaders. You can’t admit to being manipulated. Being a follower. To accepting the Third Wave as a way of life. You won’t admit to participating in this madness. You will keep this day and this rally a secret. It’s a secret I shall share with you.”
That was it. It was over. Ron turned to his bodyguard. Robert was crying. He held him in his arms. So did some others, former members of The Third Wave, newly-dissolved community now breaking down the shores of awareness and amazement. The students, numerous sobbing, left the auditorium in silence.
That was for the last lesson: “Strength through understanding.”
Nobody ever admitted to have attended the pseudo-rally.