The Third Wave
This might be worth introducing int a few British classrooms…
Remembering the 3rd Wave by Leslie Weinfield
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.”
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