Overlooked or Forgotten Bits of History – The Third Wave Experiment

I have found myself listening to a nearly constant stream of episodes from the Behind the Bastards podcast. Any space that isn’t otherwise occupied by another more pressing podcast. I would like to say that the events discussed in the podcast are somewhat exaggerated, but the few that I’ve followed up on to fact check seem more or less correct. In the broad strokes, at least.

There are a few things with which I’m already familiar, but many of them I’ve never heard of, or only know in bits and pieces. One of the ones I’d never heard of was the Third Wave “experiment” in 1967. An extremely unfortunate but effective lesson on how easily fascism can take root. The podcast episode is here, if you’d prefer, and there are some good references in the show notes.

The general story is that a history teacher was having a hard time explaining why fascist movements like the Nazis weren’t stopped from within when they got out of control. He attempted to display how easy it was by radically altering his lesson plan for a week, and it quickly created a miniature fascist movement of 200 or so students. Both horrifying and impressive at the same time. Also not exactly ethical or a mentally healthy environment.

I find it curious that I’d never heard or read about it before. Perhaps it is simply one of those uncomfortable truths that we don’t wish to see. I may make an effort to check out some other material about these events in the future. It’s entirely possible that I’m simply in the wrong age group in much the same way my own children will never remember 9/11 or Columbine quite the way I do.

When I began listening to the podcast I was a bit concerned that it would darken my overall outlook on humanity. Listening to stories about evil people can do that. Fortunately that doesn’t seem to have happened. I wouldn’t exactly say that I’m optimistic, I am in fact quite cynical, but there’s nothing to do for it but try to be better. I’d rather fail trying than do nothing.

Y’all take care. Don’t accidentally create any fascist movements while trying to show how easy it can be.

3 thoughts on “Overlooked or Forgotten Bits of History – The Third Wave Experiment

  1. Interesting. I’d never heard of it either. I read the wikipedia entry which lists a number of re-tellings of the story, including a movie, but all of it seems to have passed me by.

    Given my memories of being in school in the 60s and 70s I can’t say I’m surprised. You could pretty much have convinced a significant subset of my peers to do just about anything and another significant subset would have opposed whatever it was and there would have been friction and probably fights between them. Usually it would have been over sports teams or bands but in my teens politics would certainly have done it.

    The question is, how long would the fad have lasted? This experiment was so short-lived it’s hard to say whether it would have hung around for a month or a semester. I’d struggle to think of any fad in my school life that lasted from one term into the next, though. The holidays pretty much broke any continuity.

    It seems to me there was a lot of this sort of thing going on in the 60s and 70s. Have you read about the Stanford Prison Experiment? Or of course the very well known Yale electroshock experiment (aka the Milgram Experiment). As Lana del Rey says, those were the freedom days – in this case free from oversight, legal restraint or much sense of ethical responsibility, as far as I can see.

    What, exactly, any of it proves is another question.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am aware of both of those, to varying degrees. Something I didn’t realize until I looked it up again, both the Third Wave Experiment and the Standford Prison Experiment occurred in Palo Alto, about five years apart.


  2. My “social studies” teacher in High School (back then we’d killed off the history teachers and replaced them with social studies teachers…not sure if that has changed) covered this experiment and it was like the most fascinating class or two of the whole year. It was the one time all the students were paying attention. I wasn’t completely convinced that he wasn’t making the whole thing up.

    To quote Roy from the IT Crowd: “People….what a bunch of bastards” šŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

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