The Wave by Morton Rhue

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The Wave by Morton Rhue

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Based on a real incident in a Californian high school in 1979, The Wave gives the lie to anyone who says "It couldn't happen here". A short and easy read but with a very serious message.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 160 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Puffin Books
ISBN: Puffin Books (21 Jun 2007)

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When Gordon High School's history teacher Ben Ross shows his students a film about the concentration camps of the Holocaust, they are outraged and upset. They are also full of contempt for German civilians and adamant that they themselves would never have stood by and watch the atrocities happen. Ross decides to show them just how it was in Nazi Germany and begins a classroom experiment to instil discipline and instant obedience, couched in similar propaganda terms. He calls it The Wave and gives it chants and mottos - strength through discipline; strength through community; and strength through action.

Before they know it, The Wave is taking over. The sense of unity it promotes is exhilarating, addictive, irresistible, particularly for those students who had previously felt lonely or alienated. Those who don't want to join are threatened or even beaten. Many join reluctantly, afraid to speak up. Very few are brave enough to oppose it. Within just a few days, The Wave is out of control.

Based on a real classroom experiment carried out in California in 1979, the teacher who organised it, Ron Jones, calls it the most frightening event I have ever experienced in the classroom. And I imagine it was. Similar experiments carried out at Stanford University, and by Stanley Milgram and Janie Scott similarly show how easy it is to stand by, how close we are to the edge of abuse and authoritarianism, despite what we may think. Only a handful of Gordon High's students are immune to the The Wave, and even of those, most swallow their doubts for fear of attracting negative attention.

This is a short, simple read, but obviously it isn't an easy one. When Ross brings the experiment to a dramatic close, there's a real sense of the shock and shame the students feel. There's also an underlying thread which discusses the ethics of experiments like these. It's an important point being made, but is it right to make in this way, without the knowledge or informed consent of the students - and of course, by extension, their parents? So there is a great deal to talk about. The importance of personal ethics, the outside effects of events too great to control, the ways in which we examine one another - all are important topics and all lend themselves well to this kind of fiction for the middle teens.

There is much of value to be taken from reading The Wave - and certainly its warnings are better taken from a book, than from either an experiment or the horror of a real life experience. Recommended.

My thanks to the nice people at Puffin for sending the book.

If they enjoyed thinking about the issues raised in The Wave, they might also enjoy Ann Holm's I Am David about a boy on the run from a concentration camp in Eastern Europe.

Booklists.jpg The Wave by Morton Rhue is in the Top Ten Children's Books About Weighty Subjects.

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Magda said:

There was also film based on a similar (the same?) premise.

What I find the most important in this whole strand of social psychology research (and perhaps what Zimbardo's prison experiment shows best) is that the explanations for, let's say, group, organised, social evil cannot be found inside the (supposedly diseased, corrupted or otherwise defective) mind of an individual, or many individuals.

Serial killers might be sick in the head, but the people who condoned, run and submitted to Auschwitz by and large most certainly were not - they were just like us, our children, our friends.

And similarly, resistance and heroism can come from the most unexpected quarters.

Jill replied:

Yes, there was a film. I think I found Janie Scott's blue eyes brown eyes documentary most interesting - but that's perhaps simply because I saw it first. There are trivial examples in every walk of life. I do think it's as well to bring them to the attention of children in books like these.