The title is a quote from my grandfather. The grammar is intentionally incorrect. It was his way of making a point. It simply refers to the fact that many of us are incapable of learning from the mistakes of the past, and therefore destined to repeat them. We called the first World War, " The War to end all wars". After such suffering and horror surely we would never want to repeat it, but within a generation we were playing the same game. With the Holocaust - we swore "never again". Again, I think we got it wrong. Humanity has a great drive for good - but we have an equal an opposing force for evil. Coupled with the desire for tribal identity, to be one of "us" instead of one of "them" we will continue to fight, destroy and hate others. With the wrong people in power - the results can be catastrophic, but every day on a smaller scale some one is hurt, frightened, tortured or even killed just because they are not part of the right of group, or they have stood against the status quo.
The Wave is a fictionalised account of a real life experiment in Palo Alto California. It wasn't at all ethical. School children were used without their knowledge as part of this experiment into the darker side of human nature, but it does give insight in the human condition, and there are certainly lessons to ne learned from reading this. Because this is a fictionalised account - it can be very difficult to sort out fact from fiction. For this reason, I have painstakingly researched this experiment online as well reading the book, and while a few basic facts are disputed, and I'm sure many of the conversations are fictionalised, the basic facts appear to correct - frighteningly correct.
The whole event began with a simple question in a history class. How could so many Germans have stood by and done nothing - or pretended that they did not know what was happening? Ron Jones was in his first year of teaching, and somehow he got the idea to bring it all to life for the students. By all accounts, this was not an evil man. He was young, idealistic and want to inspire a passion for learning. But even the idealistic can fall victim to too much power, and I believe Jones became as much a victim of his experiment as his test subjects.
Jones began by creating a fictional group - "The Wave". He incorporated a militaristic style discipline into the class and developed a motto "Strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action". He gave children a sense of tribal identity, of belonging, and quickly made the class outcast into a leader. Membership cards and armbands were given and children were instructed to recruit other children. Although the book fails to mention this fact - not only were the children meant to recruit other students at their High School ( secondary), but also at the neighbouring elementary or primary school. A few students were selected to act as secret police and inform on non complying students, but soon a large number of students had turned informant. The intellectuals of the class resisted, although in the book we only hear of one standing up against this, and most importantly the sole Jewish objector is never mentioned, but these are ridiculed as being afraid to give up their position of power. According to Jones in his own personal statement, which is reflected in the book, they had grown used to being the top of the class and could not cope with equality. I believe instead these were the only ones with the inner strength to take a stand against something that was clearly wrong.
In the book Laurie Sanders and her friends on the school paper seem to be main the source of resistance to the Wave. Even teachers are initially enthralled by the increased discipline and focus on school work. The Wave catches on well with the football team and is seen as the school's one chance of regaining it's athletic glory ( which had been thoroughly trod into the mud). Is this movement really wrong if it results in better grades, better behaviour and most importantly a better performance on the football field? Who knows - maybe old Adi was on to a good thing?
If you do not know how this experiment ended - and wish to avoid any possible spoilers, please skip the following paragraph. Although I suspect most of you can guess that Jones did not usher in an American Reich. In the book the experiment continues for roughly two weeks, and many participants claim this as well. Jones however claims to have ended the experiment on the first week after learning some children were to be assaulted for non compliance and a number of calls very concerned parents. My feelings reading the book is that far too much hinged on the outcome of the football game - had they won - this would have gone much farther.
I think this book should be required reading for secondary school students. I firmly disagree with the premise. Children were used as guinea pigs and one has wonder exactly where the head teacher's head actually was. What could he have been thinking to have allowed this? Children were harmed - some very seriously all in the name of re enacting history. But there is still so much to be learned from this. This shows exactly how desperate many - if not most children are for a sense of group identity - a sense of belonging. It shows how quickly we are willing to trade freedom and morality for a sense of superiority and being special - and it shows how easily we all could have become Nazi's and I see we because I am no better than anyone else. I'm not sure that I would have gone along with the classroom experiment, but as a mother with children, in Nazi Germany I most certainly would not have gone knocking at the Fuhrer's door and asked him to cease and desist from such atrocities.
This book is not without flaws. Perhaps it is just me, but I found expression like "gee" a bit overdone, as if trying to play on the extreme innocence of the young people involved. I did not find the characters especially well developed, and this made it a bit more difficult to get into the story. I would have liked to seen a lot more depth in regard to the main characters, but this is based only upon a teachers recollections of each student, years after the event, to have added more very well might have meant getting it wrong. Still I wish the author had taken the time to try to track down and interview a number of students, which might have allowed for some understanding of their feelings and motivations, as well as giving more than one side of the story. But the most difficult aspects of the books to accept are in fact true. I couldn't believe that other adults let this go as far as it did. The teacher responsible recounted a phone call from a concerned rabbi. The rabbi actually apologised to him. The most difficult part to accept is that in less than two weeks, the entire value system for a large number of young people was completely erased and replaced with a completely different set of beliefs.
I first read this book in school - yet another book brought from a teacher's home just for me to read - I quickly read any book in any class and many teachers were kind enough to make loans to me from their private libraries - a privilege for which I am grateful even now. They gave me a place to escape to in rough times, a way to forget, and a way to educate myself. As a child this book had a very strong impression on me. It reminded me, as my grandfather always did of the importance of thinking for yourself, of standing up against a crowd if need be, and I did just that more than once growing up. I was always the one to stand up to a bully - especially if it were someone else being bullied. Not to say I didn't get a few kickings - but I was never beaten. I never gave up on what I thought was right. I won't say this was all down to this book. I'd say most of it was my grandfather and those teachers who took time out of a busy day, not only to lend me books like this, but to engage me in conversation about the moral issues involved, but this a book which I feel will help a child immensely in learning the consequences of inaction. It is a book which encourages the reader to examine their own beliefs. How far would you go to belong? Would you stand up if you witnessed abuse or oppression - or would you look the other way and remain safe yourself.
Finally, I think this book makes us look at the collective blame we heap upon Germany. I wasn't born in WW2, and I've never been to Germany. But there is nothing I love more than listening to war vets stories, and I always found many of them quite happy to indulge my love of stories, especially my Grandfather. It is only as an adult that I have been unfortunate to discover what my grandfather never told me, the reason for his distress at the treatment of Germany after the war. I've spoken to people on all sides of the conflict and I firmly believe that the vast majority of people lived in fear. In our self righteous fury to avenge the wrongs of the war, we went out and committed our own atrocities. Rather than defeating evil - in some cases we became that which we sought to destroy. As my grandfather said, "Those that can't learn don't". We failed to learn on that occasion, but perhaps by really looking at how close we could all come to fascism, and how hard it can be to stand against a wave so to speak, we can actually learn from the past rather than casting blame. How many of the children involved disliked what was going on, but refused to speak out of fear of ostracism or physical attack? Think how much more a German dissenter had to fear in WW2 Germany. Most of the first residents of Dachau were German political prisoners. There are always at least two sides to every story.
Sadly, I can see many parallels between the Wave and certain movements where I live. Adults prey on confused children, giving them a sense of belonging, of importance, and of superiority - after all no matter how low we sink we're still better than those " _____" (insert religious, ethnic or lifestyle slur ) of your choice. We don't need to strive to better ourselves - only to beat the others. We have everything from petty dictators who rule through fear to sad and lonely children who follow their orders, proud to belong to something, and the whole militaristic displays to boot. And once again, whole communities live in fear because no one has the nerve to just stand up and say enough is enough. The book also subtly shows one difference in the children who did have the courage to stand up - they had parents at home who cared - who made them feel loved and valued as individuals, and encouraged them to come their own conclusions. There is lesson for all of us here - not least of all for parents. Raising my sons is the most important thing I will ever do. I hope I can raise them to always look at both sides, and to have enough belief in themselves to resist the lure of those who say - "come join us". I have never asked blind obedience of my children and I never will. If someone attempts to impose their will upon another they must have a clear and fair reason for doing so. They will have to learn to develop their own values and be guided by them. I hope my boys will always be able to think from themselves and follow their own conscience, even if in time that means they disagree with mine.
'Welcome to a brave new world'
We are writing the year 1969. Laurie Saunders, friends and classmates, seniors at Gordon High School are covering World War Two in their history class. Young and hip teacher Ben Ross shows the class a movie reel about Hitler, the Third Reich, and the atrocities that happened in the concentration camps. Students show a varying degree of interest, some are shocked, other looking disinterested and then there are those who appear to be sleeping through the lesson.
Some of the students question the statements of many Germans at the time that they did not know anything about the things that were going on. Laurie in particular cannot understand that nobody said anything or tried to stop them. Not even teacher Ben Ross can answer that question.
Instead of trying to explain what might have happened during the Nazi reign, Ben Ross decides to start an experiment, just for the next lesson and see how the students react. He comes up with a new class motto 'Strength through discipline' and teaches his class how to sit straight in class, how to pay attention and how to, from now on, answer questions, by standing next to their desk and start all answers with 'Mr Ross ...'. There is even a symbol and a name for their group, The Wave.
Although bemused, the students are keen to take part, after all, if they show willing, they will get good grades. At the end of the lesson, the students leave class but the buzz they got during the lesson stays with them and discussions start.
Next day, Ben Ross, arrives a little late to his own class to find everyone there, in the correct straight position waiting for him. He is astonished but decides to continue with the experiment and see where it leads. Even he seems to get swept up in the moment.
Over the next days, The Wave starts taking over not only Ben Ross' history class, students from other classes are eager to join and the once small group of students soon grows larger and larger until it starts taking over much of the student population.
'Join The Wave - or else'
Rules are made up, and attributed to their leader, Mr Ross, even though most of the time he has nothing to do with it.
Students who do not want to become part of The Wave are bullied and it appears even beaten up. There are cafeteria tables, football field seats for Wave members only.
There is growing concern coming from the parents of some students as well as other faculty members. Some of Ben Ross' original class, Laurie and her boyfriend David who had broken up with her over membership of The Wave and even went so far as to push her, desperately try to convince their teacher to call the whole thing off.
The Wave has to stop, once and for all and soon is not soon enough...
I apologise that my summary of the book is a lot more detailed than normal but as this is a teenage/young adult book, I feel that it is important to give as much information as possible about the story this book contains without without giving everything away. I recommend that adults also read the book as it is very moving and rings so true for many.
--- History in action ---
Based on a true story, an incident at a Palo Alto, California high school, it retells the story of an experiment in 'living history' gone, not necessarily wrong, but seriously out of control. There is not much information available about the original 'incident', no newspaper articles, no eye witness reports. It appears that those who lived through the experiment decided not to talk about it. There are however a few people who will confirm that something went on during a week in spring 1967 but will not elaborate. The teacher who started what he called 'The Third Wave' was called Ron Jones and his essay is one of the only confirmed accounts of the 'experiment'.
'What's in a name?'
American teen fiction writer Todd Strasser also writes under a number of pseudonyms, one of them is Morton Rhue. And Morton Rhue's most successful outing seems to have been the novelization of the 1981 made for TV movie 'The Wave'. His stories are often based on his own experiences and have been, on occasion, turned into big screen movies.
'It could never happen again' or a lecture in fashism, manipulation and loss of free will and thinking
Looking back at the atrocities that happened during World War Two, one would think that people have learned their lessons and will always think before acting.
Who really knows if the original story about the classroom experiment in the 1960s happened the way the apparent teacher Ron Jones described it, if it ended the way it did, if the TV movie is close to the truth or not.
Whether or not the story happened the way it is described is not what we have to look at and debate here. What we have to look at is the message of the story which is a stark reminder of what went on in the past and gives us a clear warning not to repeat the same mistakes.
If you look back into our more recent history, even here you can find a lot of similarities, genocide in parts of Eastern Europe or Africa, the incarceration of free thinkers in some parts of the world, the killing of the opposition.
We may never find out why people decide to give up their free will and follow the crowd. We may never understand why people take the easy way out and try and blend into the background instead up standing up and fighting for what's right. After all, we have all seen and heard of the killings in the concentration camps during WW2. We were all shocked when we saw the pictures flickering over our television screen while watching documentaries. And haven't we all kind of promised ourselves that we would never fall into the same trap. Aren't we intelligent people who know things and cannot be manipulated?
Well, think again. There is always something in the human psyche that will overrule the conscious mind and pick the easy way out. Plenty of people nowadays will not say anything in case there are repercussions, the fear of reprisal will stop them from speaking up.
'All animals are equal but some are more equal than others'
The book 'The Wave' describes a modern classroom where some students are bright and others just get by. Then there are those that show no interest, the ones that have already given up on their education, knowing or feeling that they are failures and their future is bleak. Take Robert, the class looser. He is compared to his bright and athletic brother. He can't be bothered and has given up on himself.
Having a purpose and a structure suddenly wakes up something in him and he becomes part of a movement. He is not the outsider anymore, everyone is equal now. For the first time he feels like he belongs.
Even within a utopian ideal there will always be some who stride for more, who want to become more respected. And these are the ones you have to look out for. They are the ones who will come up with new rules and regulations, ready to unseat the original leaders and thinkers. They thrive in their new roles and spend time and effort to make their project a success and pity the ones who disagree. They are to be forced to rethink their ideas and join the movement or feel the wrath of those who have seen the light.
'Only a story told well is a story worth telling'
The writing style is very easy and flows well. While this book is trying to convey a message, it is never patronizing or preachy. It shows how the story, the movement develops, catches up with a number of characters throughout. The characterization of the teacher and main student body is adequate, it is just enough not to distract from the actual story. We do get physical description but they are just there to point out where the message is heading.
I found that reading The Wave gave me shivers down the spine. It could have to do with the fact that I grew up in Germany and have to live with the Nazi history. Or it just could mean that I notice that although this is 'only a story', nothing will ever stop it from happening. It only takes a couple of determined fanatics to start it all up again.
I can only hope that there are then still enough people around to stand up to them and stop them before things get out of control.
'Don't judge a book by its cover'
Just by looking at the cover of the paperback you will instantly notice how intense and menacing it looks. All the different shades of grey and the striking red in the Wave banners and flags, all in a straight line. Doesn't it look hauntingly and frighteningly similar to the grainy newsreel footage we know of Nazis in grey uniform with their red swastika armbands and banners?
While the cover is eye catching in a disturbing kind of way, it is not one of the covers you would go out looking. Maybe you wouldn't even give this book a second glance because of the menacing cover? You may even be able to imagine what the book could be about?
Whenever I see this book, and I had it for a while at home now, it still gives me the heebie jeebies. For me it's a very strong emotion considering it's a book written teenagers and young adults.
There are other editions out there with different covers but none is more to the point than this one.
Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Puffin (21 Jun 2007)