Calif. student social experiment goes terribly wrong in 'Invisible Line'
SAN JOSE, Calif. — The subject was the Nazi regime.
Yet, a classroom full of students at the old Cubberley High School in Palo Alto in 1967 were having a hard time understanding how German people could have possibly accepted and endorsed the horrific plans and actions of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis leading up to and during World War II.
So, their history teacher Ron Jones organized a class project designed to demonstrate the appeal of fascism.
And the resulting social experiment — known as "The Third Wave" — would go very, very wrong.
"I should never have carried out the experiment and put my class in such incredible danger," says Jones, reflecting back on the events of more than a half century ago. "I crossed the invisible line and enjoyed my power, just like Stalin, Hitler or Trump today."
"The Third Wave" is now the subject of the new documentary "The Invisible Line," which premieres via live-streaming at 10:30 p.m. Saturday at www.themarsh.org/marshstream. It will be immediately followed by an audience Q&A with Jones, director Emanuel Rotstein and Stephanie Weisman, founder and artistic director of local theater organization The Marsh. The documentary will also be accessible for viewing all day Sunday. The content is free.
The documentary features interviews with Jones as well former students who participated in this now infamous experiment, which began as a way to illustrate how something unthinkable like the emergence of the and undeniably horrible as the Holocaust could have possibly happened.
"The Third Wave" started out as a five-day experiment, but soon developed a life of its own and shook through the halls of the high school.
The experiment was centered on discipline and a "sense of community." Students were given strict rules to follow, including demanding that students had to stand and use no more than three words when answering questions.
A signature greeting — akin to the Hitler salute — was implemented, so that these "Third Wave" students could easily identify themselves from others.
Accounts say the project quickly spiraled out of control,as a dangerous herd mentality took over. Students became more eager and proficient at following the program, even when not in class, and some convinced students from outside the class to join in. Many students became convinced they were part of a nationwide movement that was about to name a candidate for president, and after five days Jones scuttled the experiment because it was being embraced too strongly.
The project offers a lesson that is still greatly relevant more than 50 years later.
"The story appeals to students and young people (because) the participants of the experiments were young people themselves. The viewers find themselves in these characters," Rotstein says. "It's the same desires and aspirations, to be part of a group, a team, a community, that young people feel today. But it is also the desire to be noticed and to be valued.
"These things were used by Jones to make the students followers of a movement he ultimately lost control of."