Palo Alto Centennial
Publication Date: Wednesday, April 13, 1994

A dangerous experiment

by Susan Jackson

When Ron Jones started teaching at Cubberley High School in the fall of 1968, it was considered the most innovative of Palo Alto's high schools. That's why the 26-year-old graduate student in the Stanford Teacher Education Program wanted to teach there. His methods were experimental and his goal was to bring social studies to life. And because it was the '60s, Jones was caught up in a whirlwind of student activism the likes of which Palo Alto had never seen before.

But what gained Jones an international reputation was an experiment in which students, the school's principal and other members of the community flirted with aspects of Nazism for a week.

Jones formulated the idea during a discussion on Nazi Germany when a student insisted "it couldn't happen here."

To find out, Jones turned his class into an efficient youth organization, which he called the Third Wave. Some students were informers, and some were told they couldn't go certain places on campus. He insisted on rigid posture and that questions be answered formally and quickly.

The experiment, initially scheduled for one day, stretched into five. "It was strange how quickly the students took to a uniform code of behavior. I began to wonder just how far they cold be pushed," Jones wrote in "No Substitute for Madness," a book that chronicled the experiment.

To his surprise, Jones found that students recited facts more accurately in this authoritarian environment and that he had no discipline problems. One previously lost soul suddenly had a role in the school--he became Jones' bodyguard.

But soon the experiment began spinning out of control.

At a Friday assembly, five days into the experiment, Jones announced, "We can bring (the nation) a new sense of order, community, pride, and action. Everything rests on you and your willingness to take a stand," he told students.

As one, the students shouted, "Strength through discipline!"

After a long silence, Jones began to speak. "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 yourselves."

He showed a movie of Hitler at the Nuremberg rally. The students and teachers saw that they had only too readily adopted many of the behaviors they were witnessing on the screen. They realized the possibility that it could happen here.

"I wouldn't do it again," Jones said in 1991. "I put students at risk." Jones' "bodyguard" broke down in tears after the rally, as did many other students. And while the students were learning more facts, "they gave up their freedom" during the experiment, he said.

The Third Wave didn't become public knowledge for years. Jones eventually wrote about it, long after he had left teaching, in "No Substitute for Madness," one of his 30 books. A movie and a play were made about the experiment.