IE University professor Maxon Higbee leads a seminar on skateboarding, a sport made its debut appearance at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020.
The sun beats down on the Nueva Segovia skatepark. Surrounded by about 20 students, Maxon Higbee begins his class with a skateboard under his arm, under the shade of a tree. Sitting on a bench, parents watch their children skate and, at the same time, out of the corner of their eye, watch the speaker addressing a group of young people in English. Nobody realizes that the human circle formed around Maxon Higbee is, in reality, the first class of many about something highly uncommon in university classrooms.
The professor shows his students the skateboard, pointing out its different parts, and then gracefully hops on. He glides along the asphalt as if floating, before the watchful eyes of his pupils. He teaches the basic movements of skateboarding—the sport that uses a contraption typically consisting of a wooden board, axles, bearings, and wheels.
IE University students are not just learning how to ride. They’re also familiarizing themselves with the extensive history and culture of the discipline, which debuted as an Olympic sport at the Tokyo games last year. “I’ve done some research, and I think this course is the first of its kind at a European university,” says the IE School of Architecture and Design professor.
Moving with balance on a skateboard is not an easy task for a novice, and after a few minutes of class, the first fall occurs. Nothing serious, just a graze on the knee. Students have been warned and will have to be more careful. Others, however, have come with prior skateboarding experience and ride the board with ease. Here, “board time” counts for a lot. For the time being, there’s no fancy footwork; there’ll be time later to do pirouettes on benches, ramps, stairs or pipes.
Professor Higbee is a native of Paradise, California, a small town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which was abandoned by miners during the California Gold Rush. It was also in this Western US state, in Malibu, that skateboarding was born, thanks to the ingenious and daring Californians, Mickey Muñoz and Phil Edwards. In the mid-1940s, on a day when the ocean was too calm to ride the waves, the surfers decided to remove the wheels from some skates and attach them to a wooden board. In the ‘50s, the first skateboard as we know them today was manufactured.
“As a child, I would build wooden skate ramps,” Maxon Higbee proudly asserts, recalling that his passion for the sport came from his love of carpentry, design and art in general. As for the origin of skateboarding, the professor recalls that the droughts in California were key to its take-off. The lack of water created a graveyard of empty pools in residential areas, and for young people, the concrete curves were the perfect setting to test out the board. Over the years, skateboarding has blown up. Skateparks were built in cities, skateboarding became widespread across the United States, it was exported to other countries, and a whole culture was forged around it. It immediately became associated with urban culture, rebellion and youth.
Higbee’s seminar will last a full term. “One day a week, we practice at the Nueva Segovia skatepark, and twice a week, we dedicate time to learning all about the discipline, its history and culture. We also spent a day working at the IEU Fab Lab, the manufacturing laboratory on campus. We wanted to design and create the logo for a skateboard brand,” says the professor, who assures that “the most important thing is that the students have fun.”
The group of students is, above all, very diverse. There are young people from Communication, Design or Architecture degrees, and from different countries, such as France, the Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago, the Netherlands, South Africa and Spain.
Trinidadian student Raissa Paty says, “I skateboarded six years ago and quit. When I saw that this seminar was being offered, I signed up to learn more about it.” French communication student Tancrede Thona believes that this course “is very interesting, as it goes beyond being purely academic. I haven’t seen a seminar of this kind at any other school or university.” The case for student Pablo Cuesta is very unusual as he lives just five minutes away from the Nueva Segovia skatepark. “I had never practiced it, and it was only five minutes away from home,” explains the Segovian in his second year of Communication and Digital Media at the Santa Cruz de la Real Campus.
“IE University is very open to knowledge, experimentation and developing very innovative academic projects. Skateboarding has also become trendy again because of the Olympics,” highlights Higbee, adding that “it’s not just a sport; it’s a form of expression closely linked to urban culture.”
In addition to being passionate about skateboarding, Higbee is a well-known artist. He has a Master’s in Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied on a merit-based scholarship in the Department of Painting and Drawing. In 2010, he also received the World Less Traveled grant to carry out a project in Madrid, where he has lived and worked ever since. Higbee has participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions internationally. He was a visiting artist in the Estudio Joven program of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, in Madrid, and was a selected artist in Issue 101 of New American Paintings. In 2018, the Casa de Lectura in Segovia hosted an exhibition by Higbee that included 11 works related to Dante’s The Divine Comedy.