I still remember the day I walked into my Year 9 history lesson only to be told that before any actual teaching could commence, we were all required to hear a special announcement. The same announcement was to be made to all Year 9 pupils across England and Wales on behalf of the Department of Education. As my teacher started the PowerPoint, we were presented with a series of new school rules, from earlier school hours and uniform changes, through to increased participation in P.E. lessons. As the rules became more extreme, the penny started to drop and one by one we realised that our teacher had fooled us, and that we were, of course, being presented with rules similar to those found in schools in Nazi Germany. It was a clever experiment and an effective teaching tool. How glad I am, though, that it didn’t go any further…
The Wave begins in a similar history classroom setting, where the pupils have just finished watching a documentary on the Holocaust. When faced with the question of ‘why didn’t anyone try to stop them?’, the teacher, Ben Ross, finds himself unable to give an adequate answer. This begins a terrifying teaching experiment, starting with instructing his class to salute and chant the motto: “Strength through discipline.” What follows is a frightening look at what ordinary people are capable of, the natural desire for a leader figure, and the power of group pressure.
I was increasingly on edge as I read The Wave. Written in very simple language, it is a quick read that really packs a punch. Most frightening of all is that it is, in fact, a fictionalised account of a real life incident in a Californian high school in the 1960s. It was a teacher’s attempt to demonstrate the dangers of propaganda and group-think, but it went badly wrong and wasn’t talked about for three years after. The teacher later described it as ‘one of the most frightening events I have ever experienced in the classroom’.
My edition of The Wave, with its stunning cover design, is part of the new Penguin Originals collection, which brings together the pioneers of fiction for young adults. I would love to read more from the series, so do let me know in the comments below if you have any recommendations.
Recommended song to reflect on The Wave: Slow Club – In Waves