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The Wave Rolls On

October 18, 2012 By:
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Students in Ron Jones’ 1967 class started saluting him when he turned the classroom into a fascist state. The experiment stumbled out of control, and the story of what happened has become a popular subject for artists and filmmakers. “Lesson Plan,” a documentary made by a former student, will be shown at Har Zion Temple.

Ron Jones was one of the most popular teachers at Cubberley High School in Northern California when in April 1967, he turned his classroom into a fascist state and instructed students to salute him. At 25, he was not much older than many of his students and was determined not to repeat the drab lessons he’d sat through in school.

The rigid order and chanting of slogans was a game during the first few days; then Jones stopped smiling. He told the class that they would be part of a national movement, a third political party known as “The Third Wave.”

Norman Einhorn started teaching Hebrew school at Har Zion Temple in the fall of 1986. Like Jones, he was also a 20-something educator and memories of boring classes were still fresh in his mind. A few years earlier, he had seen The Wave, a TV movie about Jones’ 1967 class, and he was struck by the drama, by the way Jones had started the experiment with the best of intentions, but then allowed himself to embrace an authoritarian position, walking through the hallways with students as bodyguards.

This story of groupthink gone awry, Einhorn said, provided a valuable teaching tool, and he’s been showing The Wave in his class for more than 20 years. About six months ago, he contacted Jones asking him to come to Philadelphia for a discussion about the experiment.

Jones told him about a new documen­tary, Lesson Plan, directed by a student in his 1967 class; the film has only been shown at festivals but perhaps could be screened for Einhorn’s program.

On Sunday at Har Zion, Jones will join two of his students from the class — Philip Neel, director of Lesson Plan, and Mark Hancock — for a panel discussion following a screening of the documentary.

Einhorn and Jones will meet for the first time over dinner the night before, and Einhorn will be able to ask questions that have been marinating in his mind for more than two decades:

“How much control did he really have over what was happening?” said Einhorn, now a principal of the Har Zion High School of Jewish Studies. “Was it an experiment he did on himself at the same time as the class? I’m dying to know.” 

Jones said he “strangely liked the control and the adulation.” But when he revealed after five days that it was an experiment meant to show how the Holocaust could happen anywhere, students looked at themselves and were aghast at the brainwashing that had transpired. 

Jones did more than get his point across; he drowned the students in the concept. One student in the documentary speaks of the trauma she experienced in 1967 and says she still has not forgiven Jones, an outcome he is remorseful about. The two spoke at a screening of the documentary. “I felt sorry for her. I think she’s still alone and still bitter, and that’s sad for me,” the teacher said. “With her and with me, it tends to rule over our lives to some extent and therefore I knew how sad it was for her.”

The school denied Jones tenure two years after the experiment, despite student outcries, citing his involvement in anti-Vietnam war protests. He has not been able to teach in a public school since.

Instead he has spent most of his career teaching theater arts to the mentally disabled and has coached them in sports. He writes poetry and plays and two of his books, The Acorn People and B-Ball, were made into television mov­ies. “I do miss the high school experience,” Jones said, speaking from his home in San Francisco. “When you are a high school teacher, you are surrounded by this eternal hope.” He thinks that his tinkering with fascism caused his eventual dismissal.

Lesson Plan takes the audience through the week of the experiment, interviewing former students and faculty more than 40 years later. Neel, the director, said he was surprised at how many students at graduation time were saying they would always remember “The Third Wave.” Part of the impetus for making the documentary, Neel said, was his wife, his “harshest” critic, who argued it would have never happened at the high school she attended.

“If I can convince an audience that this could have happened anywhere and take them through, step by step, how it happened, then I’ve accomplished our goal,” said Neel, who has been nominated for three Emmy Awards for editing on shows such as Ally McBeal.

Einhorn has suggested that people view The Wave prior to watching the documentary Sunday. The message of the two movies is the same — be careful whom you follow — but one is a dramatization. Einhorn hopes the bare documentary, absent any stirring music, will re-enforce the reality of what occurred.

“The documentary and having the panel there live will make students realize that these were people who have been hurt, who are still unforgiving,” Einhorn said. 

Jones, 72, lives in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco with his wife, Deanna. He said he agreed to come to Philadelphia because he admired Einhorn’s desire to investigate what happened. He said he constantly receives emails from students or reality TV producers wanting him to recreate the experiment.

“I would never do the experiment again,” he said. “That’s not a wise thing to do, to put students in a vulnerable situation. We do enough of that in life.”

He said his life is not dominated by that single week which turned into a myth that’s been retold in plays and in psychology periodicals. The experiment “is basically a secret among my family and friends,” Jones said. “My professional associates know me as someone who works with the disabled.”

For a few hours each day, though, Jones said, he writes letters answering questions from students in Germany, where The Third Wave experiment is commonly studied. “That I feel is my responsibility,” he said. “I guess that’s the teacher who still haunts inside of me.”

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