Face to Face with Ron Jones: A 44-year Retrospective by the Schoolteacher Who Made Waves
On the night of November 16, Ron Jones spoke to Yeshiva University students about the educational experiment he conducted with his 1967 high school class. The study of his experiment—facilitated by the book and film The Wave—has become a staple in Holocaust education. Before he spoke, representatives of The Commentator, The Beacon and The Observer were privileged to have an intimate meeting with Ron Jones. The Commentator thanks the Student Holocaust Education Movement (SHEM) for organizing the event featuring Mr. Ron Jones and affording us the opportunity to speak with him. The following is a transcript of that conversation.
Ron Jones began the session by setting the scene of his high school classroom.
The students were in Cubberly High School in Palo Alto, California. The year is 1967, the time is somewhat important; it was a time of war in Vietnam. It was also a time of cultural revolution and a racial segregation was happening for the first time, so the school was in a state of constant chaos. The students were sophomores. They would be a typical sophomore class in Palo Alto at that time. There would be the athlete that would sort of stumble and fall over his desk. There were two very bright women that sat up front, Elaine Levine and Wendy Brody. They would always ask the questions in the class and answer them. There was a child that sat in the very back of the room; his name was Bomber. He was very dangerous. There was another student, a black student, the only black student in that class, Norman Morgan, and he sat in the back, gold-tooth smile, seldom participated. And there was Steve Caniglio. He was about mid-class and he generated every classroom exercise into a musical. So he had this great musical sense; so when we did the trial of the Kaiser, it was a musical…It was Steve Caniglio who asked how could the Germans behave as they did after the war, and that was the genesis of our experiment called “The Wave.”
When you were going into the experiment, did you think it would be this effective? Were you aware of how quickly people would be attracted to the idea?
Well, I had done simulation prior to this. For instance, to teach about apartheid, I didn’t allow the students to use the bathrooms. You might be living in South Africa and you’re black, and this might be what it’s like to feel like you’re not allowed to do certain things or go certain places. To teach about capitalism, I had students bring in food items to sell in a market and experience entrepreneurship. For socialism, I had students collect money and go out and buy things for lunch. To teach communism, I had every [student] give according to their ability and receive according to their needs, so it was just chaos. I had done these simulations and it worked. So when I entered into the wave, it was meant to be a one-day thing and I thought it would work. I thought: I can introduce students to a totalitarian environment. I can darken the room and play music. I can have them sit in certain postures, I can have them go outside the room and come back in, in an orderly manner; and that would be enough to let them feel like what it’s like to be in a dictatorship or totalitarian state, one day only.
So they knew, to some degree, that this was an experiment?
Oh they knew Mr. Jones kind of acted…you know, women weren’t allowed to wear dresses at this time and I said that women were allowed to wear what they wanted to wear. I was a very young teacher at a very bombastic time and we were always experimenting with social behavior.
In your classroom, were there students who didn’t participate in the experiment?
I think everyone participates in their own way. And this is what’s interesting. Some young adults would relish the thought of being a part of something. It gave them identity and purpose for the first time. That was definitely true for Robert, who sat off to one side; and he became my bodyguard, for instance. Some participate in a joking manner. They think they’ll just “go along with the experiment” and think it will run its course [and think,] “I don’t have to intercede in any way; it’s a game; it’s a simulation; it’s Mr. Jones doing another one of his activities.” There was one woman who resisted. She was excluded from the class the very first day. But she returned to school on subsequent days and put up banners. So there was one woman that spoke out in a pretty dramatic way.
Do you think there was any reason that she was the only person who resisted? Was there any specific quality that she had?
I know she came from a military family; and I know that she was moved around a lot; and I know that she was not a part of the school population, so she probably didn’t have immediate friends. That might have led to her feeling immediately separated from the experiment and free to act. [And so] she questioned me. She did something to indicate she had ideas of her own. And immediately I was trying to eliminate that kind of proposition.
You said that you were planning on doing it for one day; what made you continue past that first day?
Well, I walked in the second day and found them in the same position that I had left them, sort of this feet together, backs straight, books and things under their desks. And they had these zipper-like grins on their faces, you know, in anticipation [of] what’s going to happen next. So I thought about it; should I continue, because I didn’t really know where it was going. But [then] I went to the blackboard and wrote “strength through discipline” which was the first day’s edict. Then I wrote strength through…and I thought about what would come next. And I wrote “community”. You know, if you want to be a part of something important, you have to have a sense of family, community, la raza. You have to have identity, a group of people rather than just yourself. To be successful in life, discipline is important but community is crucial. So I got swept up in the idea and spontaneously thought—what is community? So I had students whisper chant-like things and I had them stamp their feet on the floor [in unison]. I introduced them to membership cards; they got cards they could put something on.
Did you make rules for the experiment, or did people make up their own?
I would write a lesson plan, sort of the rules of the day. But they were abstract. One of the students suggested a name for our group and a salute. So now we had a salute and a membership card and a sense of belonging and being. I marked several of those cards with a red X—you’re special in this community. “If you sense something going wrong, alien to our community or objecting to our community rules, let me know.” So kind of an early Gestapo was established.
So even though this was a sort of bottom-up creation, people interpreted it as all coming from you?
So, that was surprising. You’d think that I initiated a lot of this. But what happened was, I set up a situation where the students were empowered to some extent. As a teacher you always see the students sitting up front who are very bright. And you see the children in the back, the Bombers and the Normans. [But] sometimes you miss those in the middle…All of a sudden it was that middle group that was generating a lot of excitement and rules and behaviors and being a part of this.
And you encouraged them to initiate these behaviors?
Of course. One of the things was, “member[s] of a community must help each other.” This was revolutionary in a high school classroom. We’re going to give one grade, it might be an “A”, but you have to work together to get this grade. So the bright students were like “oh sh–t, what’s happening? Now I’m not in front anymore”. But there was this exchange of information in the sense that could all be successful together and that was pretty heady.
Did you draw on specific elements that the Nazi party used in its takeover?
We were studying Germany at the same time, so we were going through the historical information. You know, Kristallnacht, the Night of Long Knives; there was historical information being given and answers being given, but the parallel never made connection for some reason. It was odd.
And in the other simulations the students made that connection?
I think they probably did, you’re right. But I think the excitement overwhelmed us. I know it overwhelmed me.
Were you swept up by it?
Oh yes, by The Third Wave I was guilty of enjoying it. There was a certain sense of adulation, power. All of a sudden you’re walking down the hall with escorts that are all giving the salute and students from around the school are joining the experiment so [that] the classroom is just full of energy and excitement. There were beginning to be students from other schools beginning to join.
Was there a common enemy or common idea that you were against?
I think the evil that I was probably mentally attacking is the acquiescence of a school to a dangerous situation. The acquiescence to a school that had laneing that I thought was inappropriate. In laneing, some schools are placed in “A” groups, “B” groups and “C” groups, and kind of divided…into those that are smart and those are dumb. And I was teaching a class that was the quote, “dumb students.” They were called the executioners; they were a car club. And I just thought that was wrong because I saw innate intelligence in that group as I saw it in the middle group or any other group. So if there was something that I was, probably, combating intellectually, it was that—that the school was fraudulent in its approach to education. For instance, the blacks coming into a white Palo Alto for the first time. The black students were identified as guests. F–kin’ guests. And we were supposed to be the hosts. I thought to myself, “that is so wrong.” So, that’s the intellectual enemy that I was probably thinking to myself that we could change that some how.
And did the kids pick up on that?
[They] probably did, because there was a lot of tension about the war and this racial conflict taking place in front of us everyday. Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that ever, but I think you’re probably right.
In these types of experiments, do you feel that there is a line that cannot be crossed or a point where the experiment has gone too far?
The fine line is very clear. It is when people are in danger; that is when you’ve crossed some great divide. [And] I could see it. During The Wave there was evidence that students, on their own, again, would set up desks to solicit membership for The Wave. And if a student didn’t want to join, they might be hit; they might be attacked; their name would be taken down. There’s all kinds of authoritative activity that could be dangerous. People could be getting hurt. I think that’s the line I saw that affected me as much as my wife. Commenting about—your no longer playful. You’ve lost some of your sense of joy. And it’s dangerous.
Do you think that the morality of manipulating group dynamics depends on the underlying motive?
I trust people. Fundamentally I believe [that] good is basically trusting yourself and others. And I think evil is being driven by fear of yourself and others. So I’ve always trusted myself and I’ve trusted others in a social context.
But doesn’t The Wave teach about the harm in trusting others?
Well, I think The Wave is the phenomenon of trusting one voice. One leader. And that, I think, is dangerous.
What was your immediate thought when your students became submissive to all of your requests?
In a way maybe it’s kind of a multiple answer. Just like the student population has multiple personalities in front of you that are bubbling, my sense is I can go ahead of this or chase this idea and see where it goes. I have always been curious about things. And I think my curiosity got the best of me. So my curiosity said, “I wonder what’s happening in front of me. I wonder where this might go?” And that’s what propelled me into that next thing—“strength through community.” I think it was curiosity.
Was your leadership ever challenged?
Probably so in ways I’m not aware of. Comedy is an interesting thing. If you see resistance against Hitler, for instance, you would look for sensations or evidence of comedy, or theater, or evidence of laugher or posters or ways of protesting. I suspect there was that because there was this one woman doing her banners. And I suspect behind my back there were all kinds of quiet resistance. But that’s the problem with quiet resistance. Quiet resistance has to, at some, point stand up. I think what happens when people get to the position of—I’m going to just watch and wait. My fate is to watch. My fate is to step back. Everything is really okay. We’ll let Mr. Jones do what he’s doing. I think there was that presence in that room. It’s natural. It’s in all of us.
As a teacher, what kind of changes did you notice in the students?
One of the things that stunned me was when I realized that that large middle group was generating such large activities…they were really helping each other, and getting almost smarter, and being able to answer problems and enjoying the education process. And I was going, “oh my, that really works.” And that means I should almost go back to rote learning. That’s what we were doing. There were answers to questions, and there was a simplicity to what we were doing. So maybe instead of having lesson plans based on activities all over the room, where students were doing a lot of investigatory activity, maybe I’d just give answers and let students work toward those answers. So as a teacher I was kind of questioning my own teaching style. It went from very exploratory and playful, to maybe more rigid.
When did you realize that you had to end the experiment?
I think there were moments when I knew I went out over the edge. One of those moments was with the student Robert. The students weren’t allowed into the faculty room. And there is a faculty member sitting there as I walked in followed by Robert. And this faculty member addressed this child and said, “what are you doing in here? You’re a student you don’t belong here.” And Robert saluted this teacher and said, “I’m not a student, I’m a body guard.” So, I knew at that moment he had crossed that mental bridge. It was no longer a simulation or a game. He was engrossed in this. And I realized at that same moment that I had crossed that same bridge. I was engrossed in it as well. I liked the power, the adulation, again, the sense of changing things. The idea that you could change things for the better was an opiate of some kind. And the school at that time was involved in a lot of racial tension. Black students were taking over the bathrooms, burning the trashcans. There was just chaos. In the sense that maybe this wave would be a way to introduce some discipline and benefit the whole school.
Shortly after the experiment, you stopped teaching high school. Was your departure connected to the experiment?
Two years after [The Wave] I was kind of asked to leave that school. And I ended up working in Mt. Zion Mental Hospital. I worked for 30 years at a recreational center for the disabled, physically and mentally. And I always brought with me a sense of play. I don’t think it was actually [connected]. People always think it had to be. But in fact the school went on for another two years. And I was probably dismissed for being involved in the war in Vietnam, for being involved in the protests against the war. I was a really young teacher and older teachers had their way of teaching. And I think that my presence might have challenged that to some extent. I did, for instance, something called “IF.” It was an idea forum. On any Wednesday, students could bring onto campus a topic that they wanted to discuss, astronomy, finance, painting. And on that Wednesday there’d be teachers, any teacher, student, parent, professional, with a huge list of proposed activities or themes called “Idea forum.” And I think that was frightening to some of the traditional teachers because of the topic matter or because of the freedom. Again, the war in Vietnam was happening, and the students were beginning to question that by bringing speakers on campus. And it was a challenging time. And I was associated with that. I was the head of the Black Student Union; that was interesting. And then I was head of a group called the United Student Movement. When I say I was the head of—for these groups to exist on campus they had to have a faculty sponsor. So I gave them that privilege of being on campus and speaking out, but I think that challenged some of the traditional teachers. They didn’t want a Black Student Union on campus. They did not want protest to the war on campus.
I know you worked with some students to produce videos. Do you keep in touch with any of the students?
Oh, yeah. I’m really lucky. You know I live in San Francisco. One of the students still has their parents living in Palo Alto. So historically, students have always dropped by the house. Bring me their kids to look at, say hello. One of the [students,] we go to basketball games together pretty regularly.
It seems like this is something that had a long lasting impact on a lot of the students.
Yeah I think it did…not just the experiment, but also as a teacher that got fired two years later, they were a big part of that. Many of them stood up and said Mr. Jones is a pretty responsible teacher. And their parents did as well. And there was just this huge chorus of that versus not a single voice opposing that. But the school board was led by Hewlett Packard, the Vice President of Hewlett Packard, and there were corporations involved. I had some strange experiences. I was invited out and went to Stamford and the dean called me out. And I thought he was there to thank me because I was a pretty good teacher I thought and I behaved responsibly. And he said to me, “yeah we’d like you to leave and go to Chicago and get a doctorate degree.” And I didn’t understand that.
Did you participate in other activist initiatives besides The Wave?
I think you can be an activist in a lot of ways. I hope I am a really good parent and when I worked with the mentally disabled I wanted to. For instance, I mean I love basketball—I coach basketball—and instead of playing basketball against other specially disabled Olympic teams, I invited the police department team, the Cockettes—which was the gay traveling group, the Chinese embassy; so all of a sudden these communities where blending together to play basketball and experiencing a lot of freedom to make up the game as we go along, to change the rules. That’s activism probably but its done in a very odd way. It’s not out in the street. It’s decisions you make everyday. You make them everyday. The choices you make. Do you stand up? Do you sit back? Do you pray? Do you act?
We just did a musical called The Wave. And there is a song in the musical, “there is a moment, a moment in time that comes to everyone, a moment in time.” These moments come to you. Everyday probably. How do you treat people around you? How do you treat each other? How do you challenge things that you think might be inappropriate or wrong?
Do you continue to consider yourself an activist?
Well…I’ve always been an artist. I’ve always written books. I’ve always assembled materials. I’ve always done plays and drama. I’m a performing artist and now I’m a poet. I travel with musicians. I go to Europe. So I find that is my voice. When I travel and do poetry that is my activism. And I am very happy because this just explains one soul in this world. And I just love exploring that prospect. So I go on stage; I do solo shows. I work with musicians…I’m in a writing group…Grandfather…Coach of CYO.
Are you involved in any political movements now?
That is my politics. It’s interesting. I have trouble joining groups. And I think that’s one of the consequences of The Wave. And some of the students have said the same thing.
Before The Wave, did you feel like you could?
Before, I probably would have been president of them. I just no longer want to be that leader. Or even get into that position.
So now it’s traveling around and participating in arts and culture?
Well, just being a good father. It’s that simple almost.
You seemed to have tried to push your students to be assertive and stand up for what they believed in. Do you think we’re educating our young people today to be assertive?
I would like to see assertiveness if we provide democratic experiences in the school. And I just don’t think we do, to be honest. When we talk about democracy, when does it take place in our schooling process? When do the students and the faculty really sit down and say, “You know this is where we should be going. This is how we could do this.” Maybe it could be done as an “IF,” something set aside; it doesn’t have to change the whole curriculum. But when is your voice valued? I mean the only reason I’m here is because a student called me. I answer student inquiries religiously. Because you’re the future. So I want you to be assertive. And I want you to love democracy and freedom and justice. These are wonderful things.
Sophie Felder, Yedidya Gorsetman, and Ezra Seligsohn transcribed and edited this report.