Rejecting conformity: Know when, how to speak out

By Hayley Nagelberg, Columnist

In high school, when learning about the Holocaust, my class watched a documentary called “The Wave.” The documentary is based on a high school teacher whose students struggled to understand how so many people blindly followed the rules of the Nazi regime. Over the course of a few days, while simulating exercises to mimic extremes of community and regimen, the students became entirely caught up in the mock regime.

On the fifth day of the experiment, he told them he would be hosting a televised address by the organization’s leader. Instead, he showed the students a film of Nazi Germany.

The teacher was astounded by how quickly the students succumbed to authority. Last spring, Dina Leygerman, an English teacher for high school seniors, wrote a similar project she ran with her own students. The lesson was part of a unit that included reading George Orwell’s “1984.”  She wrote how she framed the project as a way to fight “senioritis,” the feeling students have during their last semester of high school —where the end is so close that work ethic and performance slack. She would hang up inspiring posters encouraging students to work hard and tell her class the strict rules imposed are intended to keep them on track to finishing school.

Every year she ran this project it worked. Until last spring.

The students in that high school classroom saw through the ruse. They pushed back on the order the teacher enforced. They spoke out against the similarities between the teacher’s actions and a dictatorship. The teacher even tried to bribe key student leaders to speak out, but she did not succeed.

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The experiment failed.

The use and reuse of this experiment for five decades explains how generations fell into the wrongful mindsets of older leadership.

The failure of this high school classroom to conform speaks enormously about the power of our generation to speak up and set a new course moving forward.

With the start of a new school year under way, the message learned from this story should inspire and empower us. College presents many opportunities; we are here to learn from world experts in fields that interest us, get involved in business and development positions and prepare ourselves to be the next group of community and global leaders.

While we can learn immensely from our teachers, advisers and mentors, the interactions we have with our peers can chart even stronger courses for the world. It is crucial we take note of those around us, in class and in clubs. As much as we learn from the adults on this campus, what we learn from each other is equally as important.

Hayley is a senior in ACES.

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