The opening title of Lesson Plan: The Story of the Third Wave (2011) reads:
“In 1967 a High School student asked his history teacher how the German people could so easily follow Adolph Hitler. What follows is the result of that question.”
The story of the Third Wave experiment has been adapted into a 1981 ABC made-for-TV movie called The Wave, a famous novelization of that film by Ted Strasser, and the successful German film Die Welle (2008). Lesson Plan is unique among these, in that it mainly consists of interviews with the original students and the teacher of the experiment. One of the documentary’s co-directors is Philip Neel, himself an original Third Wave class member.
Lesson Plan gives by far the most comprehensive study of what happened at Elwood P. Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California. Not a single event that took place is overlooked – it takes time to carefully document each and every incremental change in the class and the students, hearing different events in the timeline from different perspectives. Former students and participants in the Third Wave retell their stories as they experienced them forty years ago.
The experience clearly left a lasting impression on the students – almost all remember the experiment in vivid detail. Some still have their membership cards.
The Original Experiment
The Third Wave experiment began during the first week of April, 1967. It was conducted by Ron Jones, a 25-year-old High School teacher who found himself unable to communicate to students in his world history class how the German people could have overlooked signs of the Nazi genocide. Jones decided to demonstrate to the sophomore students how German citizens could have been seduced into supporting Hitler.
Jones began conducting a social experiment. It began with Jones implementing new behaviors in class: students were ordered to sit at attention in their classroom seats with back straight, feet on the floor and gaze straight ahead. They were also told to stand at attention when the school day started and when giving answers to class questions, to address the teacher only as “Mr. Jones,” and to limit their answers to three words or less.
Jones was astonished how quickly the students accepted the new behaviors. He never meant the experiment to last beyond a single day, but continued it after seeing how quickly the students greeted the new rules with enthusiasm. When walking into class on the second day, he expected his students to have gone back to their old ways, but instead found that they all stood at attention when he entered and sat straight-backed in their seats without being told. Ron Jones says in interview:
“When I entered the class the second day, I really anticipated that the class would be back to normal…but to my surprise the class was just kind of sitting there, these zipper-like smiles on their faces, and these twinkles in their eye…and [I] was thinking about…maybe we should continue, and if we do continue, where will we go?”
On the second day, the experiment escalated. With the feelings of discipline and community now set, Jones then told his students that this was not, in fact, a simple class project, but was an actual movement called “the Third Wave.” Jones then gave the students a Nazi-like salute of a curved hand (symbolizing the “wave”) and ordered them to salute other class members both in class and in everyday life. The students complied with these new rules too.
The Third Wave was given a series of slogans, including: “strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride.” Students were also given membership cards, three of which were marked with red X’s. The students who received the cards marked with red X’s were to be the secret police force and inform Jones of other students who were not abiding by the rules of the Third Wave.
Soon, Jones is viewed as an authoritarian father figure, with students volunteering to be his body guards. Posters were made by students known as the “Breakers” who decided to act against the Third Wave, but are promptly torn down by supporters. The students began to believe they were taking part in a movement which was going to form a third political party in the United States, run a party leader as candidate for President and lead a revolution.
The Third Wave quickly spiraled out of control in a matter of a few days, reaching its peak by the fourth day. Jones ended the experiment after a single school week after receiving complaints from teachers and parents, and realizing he had lost control of the experiment. Jones then revealed to his students it was a hoax, and pointed out how easily the students were seduced by the appeal of fascism.
Jones would be denied tenure at Cubberley High School two years later due to his anti-war activism and connection with progressive organizations. This decision provoked large student demonstrations.
Lesson Plan carefully studies these events and many more, and documents the former student’s thoughts and feelings as fifteen-year-olds experiencing the rise of a fascistic movement in their class that eventually engulfs the entire school, growing from thirty students to over two hundred within the school week.
The direction and production of Lesson Plan is stellar. Interviews with former students and Ron Jones himself, as well as other scholars such as Dr. Philip Zimbardo, creator of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, are edited together seamlessly. The film contains a cohesive and enthralling story separated into an introduction, sections corresponding to the different days of the school week, a climax and insightful closing analysis.
The different narratives provided by the interviews are interwoven, sometimes letting a sentence from one former student be finished by a comment from another former student. Other times some students remember details that others have forgotten.
Lesson Plan examines the events of the experiment from all angles. Ron Jones himself offers one perspective, from the point of view of the “Führer” of the Third Wave. Former students who were active supporters of the Third Wave give another, and one woman who behaved as a dissident trying to dismantle the Third Wave gives another, forming a cohesive and compelling story.
The soundtrack is chilling, and the interview footage is combined with pictures from the time of the experiment to provide further atmosphere. Lesson Plan performs outstandingly in the realm of setting the stage, and telling the story as it really happened.
General Crisis of Capitalism
Lesson Plan provides a societal context for the general discontent of the student body. The Third Wave happened in an era when anti-war protests in the streets were common, when the Civil Rights movement had reached its revolutionary zenith, when a U.S. President had been assassinated, when the Black Panther Party gained national prominence, when imperialist wars abroad in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam, had resulted in the draft, when thirty-two countries gained independence from their European colonial rulers, when revolutionary movements raged worldwide throughout Africa, Europe, Asia and Latin America, and when counterculture and the challenging of societal norms was prevalent.
In this way Lesson Plan shows how crisis nurtures fascism within capitalist society today, just as European fascism was nurtured in the atmosphere of chaos, uncertainty, disillusionment, and rebellion that swept the world in 1919. The Third Wave “movement” used the fears of the students regarding the draft for the Vietnam War and the general discontent of the day to promise a brighter future. One former student summed up the promises of the Third Wave:
“Our country was having economic problems…that we could do better, better economically, that we could do better politically, militarily…there was a lot of weakness going on with our current administration, a war that nobody wanted to be in, that we were gonna find a better way, that we were gonna get rid of those people in Washington who were not following what the masses of people wanted to follow.”
Later, he quotes other Third Wave students as saying, “We’re gonna get the pigs out of Washington. We’re gonna get us out of Vietnam.”
Like the Third Wave, fascism makes extensive use of symbols, emblems and uniforms. It encourages militarization of society and espoused a philosophy of romantic violence. Fascism in Europe saw itself as a movement of the young, emphasizing energy, health, vitality and generational conflict. Finally, it speaks to the discontent of the social base it seeks, although the image fascism projects as a movement is often at variance with the reality that fascism imposes once it comes to power.
Counter-Revolutionary Nature of Fascism
It’s interesting to note that even the small “fascist regime” in Jones’ school also took, within the bounds of the experiment, an openly counterrevolutionary stand and exploited individual interests. Jones promised that all who went along with the experiment would get A grades, while revolutionaries would get an F unless they were successful:
“He said if we were active party members, we would get an A. If we were passive party members, we would get a C. If we tried a revolution and failed we would get an F, but if our revolution succeeded we would get an A.”
This echoes perfectly the stance of actual fascist governments towards social revolutions. A fascist dictatorship is created when the democratic facade of the capitalist state can no longer function in the interests of capital and fight off an imminent worker’s revolution, necessitating the replacement of a bourgeois democracy with a fascist dictatorship.
Anti-Rationalism and Emotional Nature of Fascism
In watching Lesson Plan, an apt viewer will notice that the idea of the Third Wave had no congruent ideology. The Wave was whatever the students, and the teacher, wanted it to be.
Fascism as an openly anti-rational ideology is essentially pragmatic. As an anti-scientific ideology, it cannot be expected to stick to one form or a set of lofty principles. Fascism does not have a coherent body of philosophical thought behind it, perhaps as a consequence of fascism’s origins in the eclectic radical right of the 19th century.
Even the Third Wave itself reflects this in its chaotic nature, being made up by Jones day-by-day as the experiment went along, and possessing no ideology, political program or social platform of any kind.
One student from the school who was not in Jones’ class remembers a Third Wave recruitment drive from the third day of the experiment, where the movement’s own members could not define in concrete terms what the movement was about:
“It was between classes and I’m walking down this hallway, and at this point I encounter a table like this, where there are two guys standing behind it. There is a banner on the wall, and the banner says, ‘the Third Wave.’ Underneath ‘the Third Wave’ it said, ‘strength through unity.’ At this point, one of the guys comes around the table and asks me if I’d like to join the Third Wave. Never heard of it before, don’t have a clue what it’s about, and when I asked him what it was, he said ‘strength through unity.’ That’s all he could tell me. I asked him again, ‘so what do you stand for?’ The other guy chimes in, ‘strength through unity.’ They constantly repeated this mantra without really telling me what this was about.”
The movie does an excellent job of showing how fascism appeals to emotionalism, populism, pre-existing morals and ideals, and feelings of community. Ron Jones refers to the key to the experiment being instilling “being a part of the group…the raw, guttural feeling of being a part of something bigger than oneself” in the students, and promoting ideas of unity by chanting together, stomping their feet together, saluting, carrying membership cards and so forth. Just as fascism promised to “overcome” class struggle, so did the Third Wave discourage focus on different social groups and promote organic unity among the student body.
Lesson Plan thankfully avoids taking the liberal hyper-individualist angle and portraying all discipline, structure and community as inherently evil. In fact it is well-known that the Third Wave experiment dramatically improved the grades and performance of the class when they were encouraged to act as a unit and help each other with their studies.
When being interviewed about the first of the Third Wave’s slogans, “strength through discipline,” one of the former students makes an important insight: “There is a certain strength that comes from discipline. The question is, to what end?”
Terrorist Nature of Fascism
Fascism is the most openly terrorist form of capitalism. In a fascist regime, bourgeois liberalism is thrown out the window in favor of an oppressive state supported by a reactionary capitalist class desperate to stop an imminent social revolution by means of repression.
The repression and surveillance common to all fascist dictatorships is shown clearly in Lesson Plan. Students are “banished” from the class for questioning the Third Wave or for questioning Jones. Several of the students are charged with being informants, at one point actually being referred to as the “Gestapo” by Jones. They function as the willing secret police of the Third Wave. Initially consisting of just a few informants, Jones was surprised when students began turning each other in, even their close friends, for trial and “execution” for joking about the Third Wave in any way or by failing to abide by its rules.
Students who raised any objections, told their parents or outsiders about the movement, criticized the Third Wave or refused to join were “sent to the library” from the class, supposedly banished for the rest of the semester in a sort of mock execution. Outside of class, the other students and even former friends had nothing to do with them, as if they had been erased from existence.
As one woman remarks, “people would just disappear.” This symbolic process eerily echoes fascist and military dictatorships in Latin America, which would “disappear” political dissidents and revolutionaries. Fascism ultimately serves the ends of capitalism by repressing and murdering those who pose the greatest threat to it.
Criticisms: the Definition of Fascism
The main flaw in the film is that as a typical bourgeois production it divorces fascism from the class struggle. While it is true that the experiment was originally created to make a point about the populist appeal of fascism and how fascist regimes sought a social base, and never promised to provide a scientific analysis of fascism as a political trend, Lesson Plan reinforces the dominant misunderstanding of fascism as a purely social phenomenon.
While it understandable that providing such a definition of fascism was not within the boundaries of the original classroom experiment, the movie itself misses an opportunity to examine the economic roots of fascism and instead focuses purely on its social roots.
Although the historical context of the 1960’s in the United States is examined, nowhere is the economy or general crisis of capitalism in former fascist countries directly compared with the dissatisfaction the students felt with the status quo. What is examined are behaviors and feelings: following orders, staying in line, not questioning authority, the idea of a collective being more important than the individual, wanting to fit in, wanting to be a part of something larger than oneself, etc. The problem is that these behaviors can be observed in many different types of regimes, not just fascism.
This is not a minor point, since the understanding of the true nature of fascism is an essential part of understanding what it is and knowing how to fight it. We have already defined fascism as the most openly terrorist form of capitalism. Lesson Plan seems to present fascism as a mindset and a set of behaviors, what is often termed “totalitarian” thinking.
The movie also contains one instance of spurious petty-bourgeois philosophy from one interviewee:
“Anybody who is zealous about their cause or anybody who’s following a charismatic leader is, to me, is suspect, especially after this experience. I believe in middle ground and compromise, not firmly entrenched extreme positions.”
For a refutation of this sentiment, go here.
Despite its understanding and presentation of fascism being incomplete, Lesson Plan is a fantastic documentary showing how easily ordinary people in capitalist society can fall victim to the idea of fascism, and how easily fascism could re-assert itself in a contemporary setting.
It also disproves the social-chauvinist theory that there was something intrinsically evil about the German nation that led to the rise of Nazism. The film ends with this somber insight from one of the students:
“It’s my belief that it’s in all of us. If you are strong enough to realize it’s in you also when you say ‘oh, you poor fool, it could only happen to you’ – if you can turn around in your own private moment and say, ‘I guess I could have done this too, I guess it could have happened to me’ – maybe there’s some hope that it won’t happen again.”
Lesson Plan is highly recommended for viewers who want to learn more about the experiment or have an interest in learning more about fascism. Lesson Plan is a harrowing true story of a re-enactment of the Third Reich, an experiment that went too far. As a documentary, it is excellent work, but as a message it resonates even stronger.