In the aftermath of WWII, how could the people of Germany possibly claim to have been unaware of the Holocaust? Ron Jones, a new teacher in California during the 1960s, took a risky approach to answering this question. His experiments with fascism, known as "The Wave," have since become an infamous event that caught the attention of successive generations, including a new German film called "Die Welle" (The Wave) that has just been released.
Teachers often dream of making a difference in their students’ lives; it’s part of the joy of teaching. Former students of Jones often describe his experiments as a pivotal moment in their lives, and "The Wave" was no exception.
In April 1967, during a project week at Cubberley High School in northern California, Jones taught his 10th-grade students the power of discipline, drilling them on how to sit correctly and breathe properly. He demanded that they address him only as "Mr. Jones," stand by their desks when answering questions, and chant slogans.
To his surprise, his students – even during the backdrop of the "swinging sixties" and growing civil rights activism – embraced Jones’s strict regime, becoming more motivated to learn.
With the Wave, Jones created a movement in only about a week. It had a salute (a raised, cupped hand), a slogan, and even a secret police force. Students voluntarily informed on each other and beat up those who wouldn’t conform.
Mark Hancock, one of Jones’s original students, explained that no one was sure what to think. "Jones was the most popular teacher in school. He was only 10 years older than us, so we trusted and liked him a lot. We were 15, the age when you start to get an attitude and think independently. We were idealistic and passionate, but young and impressionable."
Jones had a reputation for bringing topics to life in unorthodox ways. For example, he had taught the issue of apartheid by issuing cards with different rules for "black" and "white" students. He had even invited guest speakers to talk about issues from all viewpoints – he even called Chairman Mao during one lesson!
Hancock says Jones made The Wave feel real by ensuring that the lessons would sink in. "The first part was just doing fun games together with our favorite teacher," he recalls. "Two or three days into it, he comes into the classroom not smiling, and he didn’t again until it was all over. I’ll never forget that day because it genuinely was scary."
Jones explained that the experiment was not a game but rather a movement involving 1,000 high schools across the US. A national leader would soon appear on television to announce a new third party in the US, which appealed to students who felt betrayed by the handling of the Vietnam War and who faced being drafted.
"At that point, it became scary and confusing," Hancock says. "When it became ‘real,’ it was easier for kids to get aggressive about it. We had to recruit new party members, and if you broke the rules, you would get in trouble with his secret police force. There was this real fear and intimidation. It was like a police state."
As days passed, students became more zealous, and lines of communication were broken between classmates. If anyone had doubts, questions, or thoughts of resistance, they couldn’t tell anyone for fear of getting in trouble.
"It moved rapidly. Each day, there were more surprises," says Hancock. "And each time you thought you had understood it, there would be a new twist. When I went to Germany to talk with people a couple of times, I found that when the entire National Socialism movement rolled out, it was gradual. Some people became zealous, while others were not concerned until it was too late."
In present times, Hancock has a tendency to scrutinize authority and confesses to feeling anxious in the presence of passionate groups. Hancock and his former classmate, Philip Neel (a film producer), will be recounting their stories in an upcoming documentary where they have successfully tracked down half of their former classmates.
According to Neel, their teacher, Mr. Jones, was an intense, energetic, and charismatic figure who talked about the positivity of discipline and community during classes. He also mentions that the experience taught him a valuable lesson – it could happen to anyone. Neel interviewed one of their former students for the documentary, who described it as a first-hand experience of history that was distinct from merely reading about it; perhaps, an understanding of how human dynamism influences such incidents.
Jones published his version of the experiment called ‘The Wave’ in 1976, which later turned into a TV film in 1981. Teen writer Todd Strasser then adapted the TV film into a novel called The Wave (using the pseudonym Morton Rhue), which has become a required reading book in many German schools.
Jones believes that the film ‘Die Welle’ accurately depicts the experiment because its director, Denis Gansel, has very well captured the nature of kids at that time in history and their technological connectivity, and also their resistance to the global economy by burning Nike. Jones adds that the film displays accurately the feelings and suspicions the younger teacher had around the older, more experienced ones, and also showcases the relationship between the teacher and his wife, and their house in the treehouse in the mountains, which made it feel genuine to him.
Jones mentions that the film’s conclusion may be a bit extreme, but in today’s society, it is quite plausible. Two years after conducting the experiment, Cubberley school refused to grant Jones tenure because of his anti-war activities, which led to massive student protests. Jones has since worked with people with mental disabilities for the past 30 years and finds it strange when people ask him to elucidate the experiment.
Although the experiment lasted only a week, it left a significant impact on his students’ lives, as many have held onto their membership cards and called it a turning point in their lives, which eventually led to their success. This realization confounds Jones, who explains that, as a teacher, one may never know what impact they might have on their students. Jones leads the antithesis of the experiment in his life, promoting peace, kindness, and tolerance. He writes books, plays, and poetry, apart from playing in a Jazz band.
He opines that life cannot be planned but needs to be appreciated. It feels strange for him to be queried time and again regarding the experiment, but on a positive note, it generates discussions that he believes is necessary, especially given how the US is increasingly becoming fascist, from homes, places of worship, and even the government.
Jones commends the new German film and the bravery it took to make the film because he doesn’t believe that a similar one would be possible in the US. It is also unfortunate that the film won’t air in the US because America lacks a sense of guilt and tends not to examine or acknowledge racism.
Would he repeat the experiment again? No, because it endangered people’s lives; however, he is glad he did it for the discussion purposes that followed. The experiment provides a framework to learn and discuss fascism, and how moments of joy and happiness can arise. Jones compares the experiment with an atomic bomb – valuable, but also dangerous.
Jones shares that people constantly email him, wanting to re-enact the experiment. However, he advises against it, as it would not only endanger children but also unleash something within one’s soul, a potentially devastating reality that one might enjoy the control and order that fascism embodies. Jones went through the experience like everyone else, and the expression on the teacher’s face at the end of the German film aims to make the audience understand and acknowledge their own capacity for evil, leaving a universal sense of accountability.
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