Acquiescence and Conformity

In 1967, a middle school history teacher found himself being asked the following kinds of questions by his students in regards to the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime during World War II.

How could the German populace claim ignorance of the slaughter of the Jewish people?

How could the townspeople, railroad conductors, teachers, doctors, etc., claim they knew nothing about concentration camps and human carnage?

How can people who were neighbors and maybe even friends of the Jewish citizens say they weren’t there when it happened?

His answer was to try a social experiment with his students, unbeknownst to either the students or their parents. I remember it well, since it was the basis for an after-school TV movie that aired in the 70’s. The teacher was Ron Jones. His experiment became known as "The Wave."

The questions were simple enough, but he decided to pursue a different approach to understanding the answers. He decided to use the same tactics in class that the Nazi’s had applied to their recruitment of German youths. He fed their desire for social acceptance and equality with approaches of discipline, community, purpose, and pride.

The first phase was to provide a common unifying dictum, which was "discipline." By identifying "discipline" as a path to a goal, such as an athlete winning an event, a musician writing a song, or an architect designing a building; he instilled a willingness to participate in class exercises demonstrating that goal. Most of these exercises involved actions like "sitting up straight," "eyes forward," and "hands flat of the table." Though these activities required a discipline of sorts, their real goal was "conformity." As a teenager, I can recall the attraction of such group exercises; and I can certainly understand the effect. Though it disturbed Ron with how quickly his students adopted his "code of behavior," his students wondered why such principles had not been taught before.

With trepidation, Ron continued to the next phase of his experiment, "community." On his classroom blackboard, he wrote the words "STRENGH THROUGH DISCIPLINE." This re-iterated what had previously been taught. Turning to his students, he was faced with the realization they had all taken this to heart. The majority were sitting up straight, eyes forward, hands flat on their desks; anticipating what they were to be taught next. He continued to write "STRENGTH THROUGH COMMUNITY" under the first line. He began to comment on the concept of community in common terms, such as a group building a barn, or your team winning a football game. Community was the bond of individuals committed to a common goal or purpose. The idea was how they could accomplish more as a community than as individuals.

Just as he had provided examples of discipline in previous classes, he led the class through exercises of "community." He had two students read the motto presented to them aloud. He then added a student to repeat the exercise until all the students were speaking the motto, demonstrating the strength of unity. Each student realized they had a voice that was part of the whole. They belonged. More importantly, they were equal.

At this point, Ron began to question why his students where taking his instructions without question. He was equally aware that he was becoming part of the experiment. His students were enjoying his instructions, but he found himself enjoying his new-found power over them.

At the end of this cycle of his experiment, he gave his students a symbol to represent their new "community." He invented a salute with the right hand brought up toward the right shoulder in a curled position, which he called "The Third Wave." This symbol, which represented the largest cresting wave in a series of waves, separated them and raised them above other students. After some time, Ron was surprised to find other students outside his class that wished to join his group. The community he had created was growing.

He decided to take his experiment to the next phase, "action." He presented group membership cards to those of his class that wished to continue this community. Not a single student declined. A subset of those cards were marked "special." Those students were to report other members that were not obeying community rules.

He stressed how discipline and community were meaningless without action. If one dedicated themselves fully to their family and community, then the well-being of the community would be reflected in the well-being of themselves. His counter example was how competition between individuals led to pain, isolation, and disappointment. The feeling of community action was better than the feeling of individual isolation.

The results were undeniable. His students were accepting all his lectures with comfort, homework assignments were being completed beyond his expectations, and their academic accomplishments were improving.

"What else where they prepared do?" he asked himself.

As a group assignment, he instructed his students to find other members. This was an assignment the class accomplished with great fervor. The results of his experiment were growing. Though he initially only appointed a handful of "special" members to report rule breaking, he now found dozens of students were reporting other group members for such actions as "failing to salute another group member."

The most noteworthy result of this stage of his experiment were the reactions of his gifted students. These were the ones that were used to the accolades of individual accomplishments. They were now subjugated by the group purpose. Instead of the questioning and leadership they previously showed, they had become quiet and withdrawn. They followed the curriculum, but where not active participants. In the common view, they had begun to exhibit signs of having learning disabilities. I find this a valuable insight with today’s regimented education model.

The parents were not oblivious to this group’s existence, but a very small percentage questioned Ron over what this was all about. Ironically, a rabbi questioned Ron over his curriculum, of which Ron simply stated they were studying the "German personality." This rabbi took Ron at his word and stated he would calm the concerns of other parents. Had only the rabbi refused his explanation, and demanded his real purpose in making this group, he would at least have had an example of "righteous indignation," which his students had originally questioned. Indirectly, this rabbi had now become part of the experiment.

At this point, the role of teacher and leader were becoming difficult for Ron to distinguish. Many students had taken membership in "The Third Wave" to dangerous levels. One student had taken the role of being Ron’s personal bodyguard. His students increasingly viewed Ron as the leader of an organization more so than as a teacher and he found himself more and more in the role of a "dictator." This was not just a role his students now expected of him, but one he found himself becoming. Though uncomfortable where the direction of his experiment was leading, Ron realized that to let the experiment run its own course or to halt it outright were no longer viable solutions.

He proceeded to his next phase, "pride." His class had more than doubled. He now told his students that "The Third Wave" was not just a simple organization created at this school, but a nationwide group, whose purpose was to initiate political change in our country. The group had clearly shown them what can be accomplished by discipline, community, and action. With this action, he had now given them a purpose. Though it had been a gamble, it paid off more than he expected. Not only did his students believe this larger organization existed, many searched and found examples of their organization’s mottoes or titles in other publications, and viewed them as hidden messages from this larger organization. There was pride in being a member of "The Third Wave."

The crescendo of the wave was at its peak, and Ron knew it was time bring the experiment to a close. He informed his students that the organization was to have a meeting in the school auditorium, and the national leader of "The Third Wave" would speak. On the day of the event, the auditorium was filled. The students anxiously awaited their leader. Ron led the group through the group’s motto, which the group repeated in a loud chorus. "STRENGTH THROUGH DISCIPLINE!" As time passed, no "leader" appeared. The students slowly began to speak amongst themselves. "Where was their leader?"

Ron Jones approached the podium and slowly, and with intense conviction, began to speak.

“Listen closely, I have something important to tell you.”

“Sit down.”

“There is no leader! There is no such thing as a national youth movement called the Third Wave. You have been used. Manipulated. Shoved by your own desires into the place you now find yourself. You are no better or worse than the German Nazis we have been studying.”

“You thought that you were the elect. That you were better than those outside this room. You bargained your freedom for the comfort of discipline and superiority. You chose to accept that group’s will and the big lie over your own conviction. Oh, you think to yourself that you were just going along for the fun. That you could extricate yourself at any moment. But where were you heading? How far would you have gone? Let me show you your future.”

At this point, Ron Jones turned on a projector, and Hitler’s Nuremberg Rally burst onto the auditorium screen. Lastly, Ron spoke to the stunned students.

“Everyone must accept the blame. No one can claim that they didn’t in some way take part.”

However, what may be a more important lesson was his answer to the original questions of his students.

"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. If I remember the question, it went something like this. How could the German soldier, teacher, railroad conductor, nurse, tax collector. the average citizen, claim at the end of the Third Reich that they knew nothing of what was going on. How can a people be a part of something and then claim at the demise that they were not really involved? What causes people to blank out their own history? In the next few minutes and perhaps years, you will have an opportunity to answer this question.”

“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 came 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.”

As an adult, I can freely admit that I didn’t fully understand the message delivered to my teenage self. I was above average in intelligence, socially awkward, not an athlete, and very much wanted to be with "the in crowd." I like to think I would not have fallen for such an experiment, had it been done at my school. The uncomfortable truth is that I very well might have been. I did find several questions, of which I was unsure of the answers.

  • Was I willing to question a group’s ethics over my own?
  • Was I willing to confront and refute those ethics?
  • Was my sense of self defined by society?

How a person derives the meaning and purpose of those questions is not written in stone. The seed of finding my own personal philosophy was planted. I now ask these questions to my self on a regular basis, and my personal philosophy adapts with those answers. This experiment gave me the realization that these were questions WORTH asking.

October 13, 2005