Ben Ross, in his second year of teaching history at Gordon High School, is surprised when his normally apathetic students react passionately after viewing a grisly documentary on the Holocaust in his class. The students are particularly troubled by the lack of action on the part of the majority of the German population who were not members of the Nazi party; they cannot understand why these citizens did not try to stop the atrocities committed by Hitler, and how they could have claimed that they had not known what was going on. Intrigued by the students' questions, Mr. Ross decides to try an experiment with his class to give them "a taste of what life in Nazi Germany might have been like."
In his original estimation, Mr. Ross's project would take only one or possibly two class periods at most. He opens the session the next day with a discussion about discipline and how it relates to power and success. Mr. Ross then runs his students through some exercises emphasizing posture and coordination of movement, timing them as they practice racing to their desks as a unit from different starting points. The students are inexplicably hooked by the activity, quickly learning to work as a whole, and even taking the initiative to devise ways of increasing their efficiency in completing the task. Mr. Ross then ups the ante, requiring students to stand rigidly by their seats when speaking, and to always begin communication by addressing him by name. Adopting these disciplines into his teaching approach, he proceeds with his lesson by drilling the students in a snappy, lockstep question and answer format. Amazingly, the usually lackadaisical students are spellbound by the process. Describing the feeling they get from being part of the experiment "like a rush," they return to class the next day hungry for more of the same. Astonished by his students' enthusiasm, Mr. Ross decides to develop the experiment further, beginning a discussion on community, and the heady feeling engendered when a person is "part of something that's more important than himself." He gives the new community a name—"The Wave"—and designs a symbol and a salute to be used by members only.
The next day in class, Mr. Ross adds a new twist to The Wave. He tells the students that they must eliminate their attitude of competition and begin to conceive of themselves as a team. He emphasizes that in The Wave, everyone is equal, and instructs students to go out and recruit new members, who will have to "demonstrate knowledge of (the) rules and pledge strict obedience to them." Mr. Ross passes out cards identifying some individuals as law enforcers, and the new directives arouse the students to a higher level of devotion. The movement begins to take on a cult-like life of its own.
Laurie Saunders, an exceptionally bright and popular student, is one of the first to recognize the dangerous direction in which The Wave is evolving. As an editor on the school newspaper, her concerns are exacerbated when she receives an anonymous letter from a junior,...
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It's a movie! It's a short story! It's a book! It's a scary classroom experiment! It's The Wave! Todd Strasser's 1981 novel The Wavedidn't start off as a book. It began as a way for real-life teacher Ron Jones to try to teach his history class about one of the most hideous events in human history: the Holocaust.
Like most people who hear about the Holocaust, Jones' students had lots of questions: how could such a thing have happened? Why didn't anyone stop it? Well, Teacher Jones couldn't explain it, so he decided to try out a little experiment which he called "The Third Wave." He wanted to create an environment in his classroom that would help his students understand what was going on in Germany under Nazi Rule. Sound dangerous? Well, it was.
His experiment was a little too successful and some two hundred students at Elwood P. Cubberley Senior High joined The Third Wave with disastrous effects. Jones describes the experiment as "one of the most frightening events experienced in the classroom" (source).
The story of this experiment was first detailed by Jones in a short story called "The Third Wave."Notice we say "short story" and not "essay." The short story is a fictionalized account of what went on in Jones' classroom, and in fact, there isn't a lot of evidence to support Jones' story. Something definitely went down, but there seems to be some exaggeration and maybe some fabrication going on, too.
In any case, in 1981, Jones' story was adapted into a made-for-TV movie called The Wave. And – wait for it! – what you are reading is a novelization of the movie. Our novelizer (that's a real word and we love it!) Todd Strasser says, "To be honest, I have always wondered if the 'real life' experiment conducted by Mr. Jones actually went as far as his essay alleges" (source).
Still, Strasser believes that this novel has some important lessons for readers. Plus, it's a good way for teachers to start conversations with students about the Holocaust. We agree with you, Todd. In fact, The Wave was published in Europe under the name Morton Rhue, and it's taught in German public schools (source).
This can be a tough one to stomach, but it's totally worth it. And when you finish reading, ask yourself this: would you have joined The Wave?
Here's a list of groups that we at Shmoop belonged to in high school:
- Math Team
- Cheerleading Squad
- Drama Club
- Substance Free Students
- Tennis Team
- A Cappella Group (seriously!)
- Student Council
- Science Olympiad
- Technology Club
And here's the kicker: we still turned out okay. (A little wacky sometimes, but okay.) When we read The Wave, we're almost led to believe that being part of a group is a bad thing. But if we look closer, we'll see that there's more to it than that.
Shmoop thinks the takeaway here is this: when you're part of a group, you shouldn't give up your individuality. It's important to develop your own ideas about what is right and wrong, and if a group asks you to go against something you believe in, it's better to leave the group than to go along with it just to fit in.
Okay, slow down. This is all well and good, but… it's easier said than done, right? What if not going along with the group means losing your job, or your family, or your friends? What then?
This is the kind of tricky territory we get into in The Wave. So prepare to be challenged by some of what you are about to read. And while you're at it, prepare to challenge. The message behind this book is to question things, and a good place to start is by questioning the book itself. So, don't be afraid to disagree with ideas you find in the novel, or hey, even in Shmoop's brilliant take on it.