How is it that Buddhist Cambodians turn into unapologetic mass murderers? How could Christian Germans become fervent believers in, and followers of, Adolf Hitler marching millions to the gas chambers? What allowed U.S. military personnel, trained and understanding the Geneva Conventions and the Military Code of Conduct to inflict torture unto death on bound and helpless captives? Where do such people come from, because it’s certainly not us! We could never do such things.
In 1967 a young high school teacher, Ron Jones, set up a one day experiential learning situation, much like those he and his class had done before. To get the sophomore students in his class to understand South African apartheid he designated certain bathrooms as out of bounds. To teach capitalism he had students bring in goods to sell and process. This Monday was going to be an experiential lesson in how ordinary people willingly follow authoritarian leaders; it was to be another one day experience. It didn’t turn out that way.
The first day was devoted to bringing the class into a new mode of experience signaled by the slogan: Strength Through Discipline. They all joined in sitting erect, both feet on the floor, standing when answering, carrying paper and pencil at all times. They did speed drills to get into the class and be seated in the proper fashion. Jones strolled down the aisles correcting postures as a Yoga instructor might do today.
When Jones came into class on the second day he was surprised to see the class sitting as the day before, and wanting to go on. He improvised the next steps and the experiment went on for 5 to 7 days, attracting students from outside the class, indeed from outside the high school. The discipline got tighter. Informers did their work. Students were exiled to the library. Students were shunned. Fist fights broke out.
The movie Lesson Plan: The Story of the Third Wave, which appeared last night at the Mill Valley Film Festival, is a documentary of some of the student participants recalling the details of the experiment, their own emotions and actions at the time and how they see it now. They are all in their mid 50s. Several were at the showing. The film maker, Philip Neel, was himself one of the participants.
The movie progresses forward from day to day, intercutting stills and home movies taken that year with recent interviews of the participants. The triple story of what happened, how participants reacted and how they look on it now became clear one day at a time, each day getting worse.
Jones was fired at the end of that year and was never able to teach in a California public school again. He now admits he was young and incautious. He was unprepared for over half the class responding to the growing “movement,” and acting each day more and more like young Nazi brown shirts, or Communist Young Pioneers. He said at the end, he would never do it again, and doesn’t think it’s possible to do such an experiment safely. Yet, the results were, and have been, a powerful force for understanding how the demon inside overwhelms the better angels of so many.
A graphic book has been written about the project which is required reading in many German high schools. It is widely known to American middle and high school teachers . At least two movies have been made of it, A Norman Lear television movie [click on 1981 movie, available in You Tube] and another in Germany [click on 2008 movie.] Jones himself has a video in which he recounts the story. [No DVD yet] A graphic novel has been published and Ron Jones original essay laying out the details and his thinking is available here. Several stage presentations have made it to small theaters and if that is not enough, a musical (!) written by Jones appeared at the Marsh Theater in San Francisco in January.
On Monday, I introduced my sophomore history students to one of the experiences that characterized Nazi Germany. Discipline. I lectured about the beauty of discipline. How an athlete feels having worked hard and regularly to be successful at a sport. How a ballet dancer or painter works hard to perfect a movement. The dedicated patience of a scientist in pursuit of an Idea. it’s discipline. That self training. Control. The power of the will. The exchange of physical hardships for superior mental and physical facilities. The ultimate triumph.
To experience the power of discipline, I invited, no I commanded the class to exercise and use a new seating posture; I described how proper sitting posture assists mandatory concentration and strengthens the will. in fact I instructed the class in a sitting posture. This posture started with feet flat on the floor, hands placed flat across the small of the back to force a straight alignment of the spine. “There can’t you breath more easily? You’re more alert. Don’t you feel better.”
We practiced this new attention position over and over. I walked up and down the aisles of seated students pointing out small flaws, making improvements. Proper seating became the most important aspect of learning. I would dismiss the class allowing them to leave their desks and then call them abruptly back to an attention sitting position. In speed drills the class learned to move from standing position to attention sitting in fifteen seconds. In focus drills I concentrated attention on the feet being parallel and flat, ankles locked, knees bent at ninety degree angles, hands flat and crossed against the back, spine straight, chin down, head forward. We did noise drills in which talking was allowed only to be shown as a detraction. Following minutes of progressive drill assignments the class could move from standing positions outside the room to attention sitting positions at their desks without making a sound. The maneuver took five seconds.
It was strange how quickly the students took to this uniform code of behavior I began to wonder just how far they could be pushed. Was this display of obedience a momentary game we were all playing, or was it something else. Was the desire for discipline and uniformity a natural need? A societal instinct we hide within our franchise restaurants and T.V. programming.
I decided to push the tolerance of the class for regimented action. In the final twenty-five minutes of the class I introduced some new rules. Students must be sitting in class at the attention position before the late bell; all students Must carry pencils and paper for note taking; when asking or answering questions a student must stand at the side of their desk; the first word given in answering or asking a question is “Mr. Jones.”
The audience was as paralyzed by the viewing as I have ever seen. When Neely, the film maker, introduced Jones himself, who lives in California, people were standing up in appreciation. ”Thank you so much for showing us this!”
The first question to him, however, went right to the heart of the difficulty in watching. On the one hand is the good: the explicit warning of how good people can turn into supporters of totalitarian ideas. On the other was the bad: a trusted teacher conducting an experiment with students without their knowing it. The questioner was appalled that the school authorities didn’t stop it, didn’t apparently even know more than a lesson plan write up.
Those who participated and spoke admitted they had been caught up in the “game.” All but one now look back on it as a seminal moment in their own lives. Realizing that they had “joined” they have reflected often about what that means, to themselves and to humanity at large. One participant, a sophomore girl, stood up on the second day and said she thought what was happening was wrong and she would’t participate. She was banished to the library, and shunned by some friends.
Not content with simply sitting it out she made up posters that night and brought them to school and taped them up. When she arrived the next morning they were all taken down. That night she made more posters and brought a long ladder to the school and taped them up too high to reach. She also was at the showing. Of those who were at the screening she was the least forgiving of Jones’ betrayal. We could hear in her voice the thick anguish, 40 years later, at what had happened, and that Jones, once it was over and it had been revealed as an “experiment” never sat with them and talked them through what had happened. She had never gotten “an apology” she said.
Neither the movie nor the discussion afterward asked how it was that one person had the power to resist. As in medince we seem much better at studying sickness than studying health. Why does He not get aids? Why did she not join the movement? It was too bad she could see only the betrayal and not her own exemplary courage. Nor did those youngsters who had stayed sitting in their seats until the closing act of the experiment –a wall projected film clip of Hitler and thousands standing at attention– talk about her resistance and the lack of their own.
One striking thing was that “The Wave,” as the movement was called, propogated and called on the kids’ best ideals. It did not call on them to be thugs or to be storm troopers. This movement was a force to “do good.” It was 1967. The US was in turmoil. Trust in the government was falling like a stone. As the experiment picked up steam young draft eligible young men came from outside the school to be part of something they could believe in.
Neither was this discussed. It is something we who look at past horrors forget. It is much easier to see the Nazi saluting youth and their parents as somehow “bad” people; people we could never be. The lesson however is, that regular people, called to join something they think is good and necessary, join. And told that certain behaviors are necessary to accomplish this “good,” they easily adapt, even when crossing over well established lines. Around the world thousands do not join such movements to “do bad.” They join out of fear yes, but out of hope — that they can help change the world.
Yet there are great “bads” which we’d all agree, must be corrected. How do we distinguish between doing good in a good way, and doing good a way going bad? What are the markers of such a divergence? The movie did not take up that question.
It was good that Neely included Philip Zimbardo author of the Standford Prison Experiment [conducted a few years later] and the very fine book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, in the movie. He spoke from time to time about the discoveries such experiments have given up, though again no foward-looking recommendations. How do we recognize early enough the makings of movements of authoritarian power versus those which contribute greatly in human welfare
It’s hard to know how successful the movie will be in the non Film Festival world. They are going to try to get it distributed. Meanwhile I strongly encourage you to make this event and all the subsequent material that has come from it as part of your tools of engagement. Click around on some of the links above and watch some video or find the book. Encourage public television to give it a run.
Jones lives in SF and I’m sure would come to a get together if enough folks are interested.
Mill Valley Film Festival Lesson Plan description.
S.F. Chronicle article about Jones and the Wave.