“We have found that other universities have copied aspects of our degree programme,” says Maria Grever, the head of the History department. “But in all fairness, we keep an eye on trends at other faculties, as well. In certain regards history degrees have become more alike.”
So is there still anything uniquely ‘Rotterdam’ about the degree as it is currently taught at EUR? ‘Absolutely,’ say the authors of the History@Erasmus book, which was compiled to mark the department’s 40th anniversary. They put the same question to the department’s researchers. “Several pillars of the early incarnations of the programme can still be detected in the current curriculum, such as the importance of methodology and a refusal to focus only on the history of the Western world,” the authors wrote in the book.
“Admittedly, the emphasis is still on the use of proper methods and taking a business-like, less story-like approach,” Grever adds. “Ours is the only History degree in the country that comes with a compulsory Statistics course.”
The Faculty of Humanities that was never established
So why did our 105-year-old university not have a traditional degree course such as History until forty years ago? The explanation is simple. For the first 65 years of its existence, EUR was a school of economics (the Netherlands School of Commerce, later rechristened the Netherlands School of Economics). In order to be allowed to call itself a university, the school had to establish a Philosophy degree, as well as a Faculty of Humanities. The Social History degree was supposed to come under the newly-to-be-established Faculty of Humanities, only this faculty never materialised. Although EUR was close to getting a Faculty of Humanities in the 1970s, it ended up being awarded to Tilburg University instead.
This appeared to be the end of EUR’s plans to offer a history degree, because once the dream of establishing a Faculty of Humanities had evaporated, it seemed unlikely that there would be a History department, either. However, in 1976 the then Rector, B Leijnse, started lobbying for a History department again. Two years later the Minister for Education authorised the establishment of the new History department. Due to a shortage of space on the Woudestein Campus, history students had to attend lectures on the twentieth floor of the Faculty of Medicine’s building. This was supposed to be a temporary solution, but in the end, it took twelve years for the department to be granted different digs.
“We may not be the largest or best-known department at EUR, but we’re still going strong,” says Grever. “Our researchers take part in the public debate and are awarded funding for their research.” Every year, some 100 first-year students embark on a Bachelor’s degree in History, while some 45 students embark on a Master’s degree. “When I hear stories about low enrolment figures in other degree programmes, such as Dutch, I’m always profoundly shocked. That could happen to us, too. In retrospect, the ESHCC is a strong combination of three robust scientific areas: History, Culture Studies, and Media & Communication. We do not suffer from the little Arts, like the languages.”
In order to keep going strong, the department overhauled its teaching methods a few years ago. Since 2015 students have not been able to take more than one course at a time. Terms are shorter than they used to be, and each term now completely focuses on one particular subject. Furthermore, the name of the degree programme has been changed. It is no longer called ‘Social History’, but simply ‘History’. Both the Bachelor’s degree and the Master’s degree are now taught in English.
Grever loves the way in which the degree programmes have been internationalised. “The international students enrich the debates, and hence the seminars. We always incorporate topical international issues into our seminars, and the fact that our students come from all over the world gives these discussions a lot more depth. Discussions of the arms race that took place in the previous century and the recent intimations by the President of the United States that he may start creating nuclear weapons again are a lot more interesting when you have students from the USA and Russia getting involved in the discussion.”
The History department will mark its fortieth anniversary on Friday with a conference. Ironically enough, the department does not wish to use the occasion to look back on its own history. “We will be looking to the future,” says Grever. “For this reason, a lot of the focus will be on our young researchers at the conference. After all, they are the future.”