How classroom students 'turned totalitarian'

What is probably one of TV's most thought-provoking programs in recent years is inappropriately labeled an "ABC Theater for Young Americans," aimed at youngsters.

"The Wave" (ABC, Sunday, Oct. 4, 7-8 p.m., check local listings) has fortunately been placed on the ABC schedule at a time when parents as well as children can watch -- even if it means sacrificing "60 Minutes" for one Sunday. See it with your children, because it is a puzzling and chilling show, liable to provoke a good deal of discussion.

"The Wave" is based upon the true story of a teacher who conducted an experiment in his class to prove how easy it is for a demagogue to start a Nazi-like youth movement.

He "brainwashed' the students, using the slogan "Strength through discipline, community, action," which allowed many unthinking students to indulge in the luxury of feeling superior. In just a week he transformed many of them into apparently mindless followers, willing to obey the orders of "Der Fuhrer" -- in this case, the teacher himself. Soon much of the school was involved in playing the quasi-Nazi "game," and the teacher discovered he had lost control of it as it mushroomed into a schoolwide movement, full of hate and insensitivity to the real human needs of civilized society.

The script, by Johnny Dawkins, is a bit simplistic -- although it would be difficult to imagine any way in which so far-fetched a thesis could be believable, even though it actually did happen. The acting helps a great deal. Bruce Davison, as the teacher, and Jean Stapleton's talented son, John Putch, as a bright boy won over to the Nazi side and then reversing his attitudes, bring an element of believability to what might otherwise seem a wild fantasy.

Squire Rushnell, ABC vice-president for children's television, says this is a program "that demands to be seen, especially by young people who, together with their parents, will be able to understand the terrible consequences of what can happen if they ever surrender their individual liberty and freedom of expression." Agreed.

So fascinating is the true-life basis for this program that I arranged to talk with Ron Jones, the actual California teacher who was involved with the experiment, now working on the West Coast with retarded children.

What was his greatest shock during the experiment?

"To discover that an average high school class could become Nazis so quickly, " he told me.

How varied were the responses from individual students?

"The original class contained three young women who were by far the most intelligent and the most verbal. As the experiment unfolded, they became more and more ostracized and soon became mute, not using their verbal skills at all anymore. The other phenomenon was that the great majority of the class, who normally sit inattentively in class, suddenly had a new role and new positions of importance. As a consequence they began to behave in a new way, at a rapid rate. They weren't learning facts, but still they were participating. They were becoming excited by the process of becoming, in effect, Nazis."

How long did the experiment last in reality?

"It all took place in one week. The first day I just wanted them to experience a martial environment, but when I returned the second day I found them waiting anticipation. That was a surprise. And the following four days were impromptu exercises on my part, not knowing where it was going or what would happen."

Does our society have something to learn from his experience?

"It was very frightening to see this willingness to give up freedom of speech , freedom of criticism, freedom of humor so quickly. All those ingredients of life were easily surrendered for the prospect of being superior."

Are there concentration camp analogies?

"Well, in both classroom and camp the people who were denied freedom seemed to be willing victims in many cases. But maybe there are even broader parallels. Maybe society as a whole, today, is too willing to be sandpapered into assembly-line modes."

Did Mr. Jones learn anything about how to keep this kind of thing from happening in the future?

"I learned that you should never start anything like my experiment, because once you start it, you can't stop it. I started with a class of 30 and, within a week, there were close to 400 willing student participants.

"I found myself trapped into being the dictator. I was intrigued that youngsters were learning faster than I had normally experienced. I felt like a scientist who was seeing a phenomenon and trying to understand it. At the same time I was somewhat thrilled by my own sense of power. That was scary."

Is Ron Jones today a better person for having taken part in his own experiment? And are the students better people for having unwittingly taken part?

"I believe we are all better for experience, and that certainly was a living experience. All experience enriches us."

Well, there are many who would disagree with Jones about that. Certainly there are some experiences that would be better studied through books and film than actually lived through.

There is also the still unresolved matter as to whether or not the experience actually benefited the students who took part in it, just as there is some question as to whether or not the airing of "The Wave" may encourage other students or teachers, or both, in other schools to try this very dangerous experiment.

That is why everybody involved with the program suggests that youngsters view it with an adult prepared to discuss the matter in detail. Handled this way, "The Wave" can be an important learning experience as well as unusual viewing for a Sunday evening.

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