COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — While most Americans were enjoying freedom the last two weeks of September, 240 high school seniors were living in a totalitarian state.
Brighton High School teachers Aaron Hadfield and Allen Roberds set up a totalitarian regime in four combined classes. The simulation has been part of Brighton High's American Problems class curriculum since 1978.
The classroom was transformed into a totalitarian state for 10 class days, with students experiencing life under a simulated totalitarian government almost all the time — even when they went home. They experienced censorship and propaganda and got a taste of privacy deprivation and constant fear.
“Most of them tell me at the end that they suddenly literally feel their freedom, that they now appreciate the United States of America because they realize what they have,” Hadfield said.
Students were part of either “the party” or “the people” and played roles such as chairman, grand inquisitor and head of secret police. They wore ID tags and uniforms, a promotion of mass conformity. The people had to salute their leaders and consistently text their whereabouts to the state, a rule intensified by the threat of unannounced evening house visits.
“It was weird to see some of my friends just wouldn’t even really look at me because they know that they couldn’t smile when they saw me, or they know that if they did anything wrong that I would mark them points down,” said Terra Wunderli, the grand inquisitor.
Laughing in the classroom and criticism of the simulation were strictly forbidden, and violators were punished if caught by the secret police or turned in by fellow students. Rule breakers lost points and whistleblowers earned points. Students also could earn points by proving sincere loyalty to the state.
Diane Hobson, the attendance secretary at Brighton High, has had five children go through the simulation, starting with her oldest in 2001. She said it’s “complete panic” for her kids, and they stay at home a lot because it’s unnerving to think they could be caught at any time.
“It’s eye-opening for them,” Hobson said. “They don’t take any of that lifestyle seriously until they are put through that. They gain a greater appreciation to be an American. The democracy of the entire system is greatly appreciated. I don’t feel like they have a clue until they go through that.”
During the simulation, a regular class period begins with the people lining up along the wall outside, while the party members huddle inside to receive information and assignments.
After the people are brought into the classroom in a certain order, the chairman enters in a grandiose fashion and seats the people. Then everyone stands to sing the anthem, and the chairman gives a speech illustrating totalitarian principles. The rest of the class time is filled with verbal indictments, presentations to the state and show trials.
“My job was literally to make the whole class paranoid about saying anything bad about the simulation,” said Trevor Aiken, head of the secret police. “If I didn’t have two trials that were going to go every day, then I wasn’t doing my job right.”
The simulation is meant to make students aware of society and to help them proactively monitor the health of the country to maintain freedom. Hadfield used the example of a fish in water not understanding what the water is until the fish is taken out of it.
“You’ll never really know freedom if you’ve never had it taken away from you,” said Jake Momberger, a member of the people.
Since the simulation, Hadfield and Roberds said students have started asking questions about current events, and they’ve heard some comments about the government shutdown.
Throughout the simulation, students had to memorize and recite seven totalitarian principles, aspects of which the students started to think they might see now in America. The teachers avoid taking political stances but encourage the questions.
“That’s one thing I’ve heard a lot of kids say, that they’re scared that if they become too reliant on the government that they’ll lose their freedom,” Hadfield said. “I don’t know that that came straight out of our simulation, but I think what it does is it makes them think, 'Am I going to be free?'"