Author applauds freedom of student expression

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Mike Marqusee is an award-winning author known for critically acclaimed books on Bob Dylan, Muhammad Ali and English cricket. He blends sports, politics and cultural examination in an almost magical way. And he challenges institutional authority and received wisdom.

So it’s no surprise that four decades ago in the late 1960s, Marqusee was a self-described radical as a student at Scarsdale High School in Scarsdale, N.Y. Featured in an anthology of essays in The High School Revolutionaries (1970), Marqusee, then 16, wrote that “if one examines the school closely, it reveals itself as regimented, closed, and in many ways antiopenminded.”

“No creativity, no individuality, no questioning,” he wrote in his essay, which the editors titled “Turn Left at Scarsdale.”

Reflecting on that period, Marqusee said that for him “there was a contrast between the excitement of what was going on in the wider world and the narrowness and conformity of what was in truth a very liberal school by the standards of the times.”

He clashed with school officials in spring 1968 over registering a Scarsdale High School SDS club — Students for a Democratic Society, a radical group much in the news at the time.

“We were refused and the refusal was accompanied by a lecture on the dangers of excessive free speech and the need for ‘discipline,’” he recalled recently in an e-mail interview.

Later that year he and some friends tried to distribute what he terms a “teacher evaluation form.” They handed out hundreds of questionnaires to eager students. “By the end of the day we had collected several hundred completed forms,” he said. “In the meanwhile, a number of us were called into the principal’s office and suspended immediately.”

His parents fought the suspension and eventually were able to persuade school officials to expunge it from his record, he said.

Marqusee emigrated to Great Britain in September 1971. He actively opposed the Vietnam War and what he saw as a repressive climate in the United States. “I also had a strong feeling that I did not want to follow the path laid out for me, the path laid out for all of us at the high school,” he said. “And I had a vague idea that Britain would be the land of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Blake and Dickens.”

Marqusee still believes ardently that students’ rights should be respected.

“Students of today will become the voters, the workforce and tax base in the not very distant future,” he said. “They’ll be asked to kill and be killed for their country. They have a huge vested interest in the decisions being made now.”

“They have a right to speak on these matters,” Marqusee insists. “And society as a whole has a duty and a need to hear their voices, to create space for them, to embrace them in the debate.”

Freedom of expression, he argues, is vital to the development of fully functioning citizens in a constitutional democracy that have the capacity to critically examine and engage pressing social issues. “In schools, free expression ought to be seen not as a luxury but as an educational necessity, an indispensable tool for learning about our world.”

Currently, Marqusee is working on a book to be called The Age of Miracles: Blake, Paine, Religion and Revolution. And  looking back on his essay in The High School Revolutionaries, he still identifies with most of the positions he laid out then.

“I see someone groping to make sense of a tumultuous time … I’m surprised to find out how much of what I wrote then I would still endorse — the spirit of it, if not the exact formulations.”

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