Erasmus knew that people would feel insulted, and he said the following about that in the book: “So, if anyone should come forwards to complain that they’ve been libelled, they’ll be betraying their guilty conscience, or at least their unease.” The philosopher after whom our university was named told people never to hurt others, but also said that no group should ever be excluded from criticism. This attitude would seem to be at odds with the university’s ambitions to be a safe space. Or does it?
My own parents only completed primary school. I was the first person in my family to attend a university. At the time, I didn’t have the guts to go for one of the Netherlands’ traditional universities: Amsterdam, Leiden or Utrecht. These were classical universities, i.e. ‘elitist’ education institutions where regular people like myself didn’t belong. As far as I was concerned, Erasmus University did not give off that vibe. This was a university for everyone, I felt. At first I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the world, but at uni, I found myself confronted with different opinions. Whether it was my political affiliation (socialism) or my religion (Catholicism), nearly every belief I had ever held was turned upside down. This had a great impact on my personal development. I sincerely hope all of today’s students find a similar road to emancipation.
You can’t get a university degree if you don’t feel safe. Nor can you receive academic training if your prejudices and beliefs aren’t challenged and you’re not being confronted with ideas that challenge your prejudices and beliefs. Academic freedom comes with a few restrictions: the law stipulates that you aren’t allowed to preach hate or violence. Even beyond the legal aspects, academic communities are allowed to impose limits on what can and cannot be said, and set the boundaries of what is and isn’t allowed under the principles of academic freedom. This is a discussion that is very much in line with the debates being held at EUR on Erasmian values and what exactly is meant by being ‘Erasmian’. Erasmus himself had a few things to say on the subject that may help us get a better understanding of it.
In In Praise of Folly, Erasmus created a safe space for himself. By donning the cloak of folly, he sought to get his readers to view things from a different perspective – a playful experiment that allowed him to turn the truth upside down and assess what the world looked like from that angle, as well as what it might teach us. Folly does not understand that the strange things she says may be hurtful to people: “If a rock falls on your head, that’s truly bad,” Erasmus has her say. The philosopher was a master of turning things upside down, which might help us, too, in making Erasmus University a safe space where people can experiment and get emancipated to their hearts’ content – a place where students can divest themselves of their habits and prejudices in a safe manner.