This year, we are proud to be celebrating the 110th anniversary of the organisation that we now know as Erasmus University. It was founded in 1973, which is exactly fifty years ago. Although a special anniversary, it is a less momentous occasion than the hundred-year milestone we celebrated in 2013.

Ten years ago, we looked back at the formation of the Economische Hogeschool (an economic university of applied sciences) – one of the predecessors of today’s Erasmus University – in Rotterdam in 1913. In 2013, a centennial celebration seemed like a good idea, but it is presenting us with a problem now: because who wants to reach the grand old age of 110 when you’re only 50? What once appeared a sound and logical idea is now strange and illogical. Moreover, this makes it seem as if the name ‘Erasmus’ has lost some of its relevance for the university.

Back in 1973, it was special that a university in Rotterdam was being named after Erasmus because universities were never named after people. Before then, we had Leiden University, Utrecht University and the University of Amsterdam. But Rotterdam was different and decided to name its university after a philosopher who was reported to have been born in the city in 1466, close to the current Erasmus statue near the Laurenskerk. Erasmus’ name and images of him can be seen everywhere on campus too. Students and staff are ‘Erasmians’, but very few people actually know who Erasmus was and what his thinking entailed.

However, many people are familiar with In Praise of Folly, a book that Erasmus wrote in 1511 and that has become his most widely read and best-selling publication. In it, Erasmus presents us with Folly, who gives us an oration about herself. She tells the reader why we will only be able to understand the world if we are willing to see each other’s follies and our own follies too. Every era has its own dogmas, beliefs that seem so ‘true’ that criticism is almost impossible. This is the power of trends too, which you have to follow because that’s what everyone else seems to be doing and you won’t fit in if you don’t. Then trends change again and something completely different becomes true or right and people turn their backs on the old trends.

In the scientific community too, there are trends and beliefs that become so generally accepted that it is barely possible to criticise them anymore. For a long time, the dominant idea was that science is only relevant if research generates money. However, more and more scientists are now saying that researchers need to be activists and exercise political influence. For many years, the belief was that universities were havens for free thought, speech and discussion. Today, you are more likely to hear that what can be discussed is limited and that certain words have been outlawed. Smoking in lecture halls used to be commonplace. Now, smoking is banned everywhere on the campus – and meat and alcohol may be banned in the future as well.

Erasmus taught us not to be swayed by the trend of the day but to think for ourselves, because what might seem true at one point in time will be defamed as folly at another. I’m looking forward to celebrating the 110th anniversary of Erasmus University, which was founded fifty years ago. Why? Because it’s good to celebrate the university’s follies – and your own follies too.

Ronald van Raak column2-Levien, Pauline

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