When Will We Learn?

I watched a very interesting documentary recently. “Lesson Plan” (2011) is about a one-week experiment in a high school class at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California, in 1967. The teacher, Ron Jones, decided to answer the question, “How could the people in Germany go along with the holocaust?” in a very unique way. Over a period of 5 days he transformed a class of sophomores into a movement of over 200 students who were actively spying on each other, using fear and intimidation to control each other, and expectantly waiting for a national leader to emerge. For one of the other teachers who had grown up in Europe, it was close enough to what she had witnessed in Germany that she was actually afraid.

Many of the students from that class still carry the lessons they learned to this day. So how did Jones accomplish this amazing and seemingly difficult task in such a short time? It was unfortunately very easy. He started on day one by assuming an authoritarian tone and letting the students know they would receive a good grade if they participated and a poor one if they didn’t. He demanded to be called Mr. Jones, having previously allowed the students to call him Ron, and by the end of the class had taught them a salute and given their movement a name, The Third Wave, with a motto, “strength through discipline.”

On day two he gave the students identity cards and established the rules by which others could join. Some of the cards had red X’s on them signifying those students as secret police. They were to inform Mr. Jones of any student behavior not in line with the tenets of the movement. Interestingly, he subsequently received “reports” from many students who were not part of the secret police. The second motto of the movement became, “strength through community.”

On day three Jones expanded the movement motto by adding, “strength through action.” Members were taught how to recruit, and a show trial was held where a student who had been reported for un-party like behavior was found guilty and sent to the library for the rest of the semester. By day four things were getting out of hand. The group was expanding and drawing kids from other classes and even other schools. Jones decided to end the experiment and announced that on Friday that would gather at noon in an auditorium and watch a nationally televised speech from the new national leader of the movement. He told them over 1000 other youth groups like theirs would all pledge allegiance to this new leader. The students were excited.

Friday came and over 200 students filed into the auditorium in anticipation of the rally. At noon, Jones turned on the television and for several minutes the snow illuminated the faces of the students as they waited. When it became apparent that there was no rally and no national leader, Jones turned off the television and told the students they had been used and pushed by their own desire for superiority into trading their freedom for discipline and acceptance. He asked them how far they would have gone, how far could they have been pushed. Then he began projecting images of the Nuremberg rally, the concentration camps and the rise of the Third Reich on the wall. Many students cried, some from shock and some from relief. The lesson was profound.

This 50-year-old lesson still applies today. When loyalty and obedience are the currency of acceptance, those who don’t question rise to the top. If we think the world is better somehow today than Nazi Germany, just look around, the psychology hasn’t changed. Hitler was a demagogue who lead a personality movement. You had to be completely for him, or you were against him and he weaponized public opinion to coerce and later force compliance. Today, there has been a huge increase in personality movements which rely on a ‘with us’ or ‘against us’ mentality. The messages of #MeToo and #NoPlatform may be very different from MAGA and Brexit but they are two sides of the same coin.

Followers of these movements position themselves as morally right and are not open to engage in conversation or nuanced debate. You are either for them or against them and they won’t hesitate to “send you to the library” for questioning them. Believing strongly about how the world should be doesn’t make you a fascist, but when beliefs become weaponized against others, that is the beginning of the creep of fascism. If you find yourself chanting at political rallies, then it might be time to think about what you’re calling for. Likewise, if you’re willing to ruin the career of a man because you have decided his guilt prima facie, these are things that should make you stop and think.

Our society is rapidly replacing the law courts with the court of public opinion. Our movements, our political biases, our friendships, and our feelings are published daily. We have provided enough scaffolding for a sufficiently intelligent and ambitious fascist regime to take hold. Whether that regime springs from the nationalistic right or the ideological left is still up for debate. The students at Cubberley failed to recognize they were getting caught up in a story. We must learn the lesson they understood only on Friday afternoon.

What about you?

Will you have the courage to be sent to the library with an F-Grade when the time comes? Or will you find yourself standing at a cyber-rally, chanting slogans and feeling like you have no other choice?

P.S. Another interesting experiment on the psychology of authority and obedience was the Milgram experiment.