In 1973, Rotterdam got a university, which named itself after the city’s most famous child of all time, Desiderius Erasmus. To give substance to that naming, there has been an Erasmian values chair for several years, occupied by former SP MP Ronald van Raak. Van Raak himself studied philosophy at EUR and on 15 May he held the Rotterdam Lecture, in which he shows how his admired Erasmus can connect people: “Erasmus was terribly critical and rock-hard. He spoke out against everything and everyone with any power and influence”. Connected by Erasmus is my theme, of course, and I am curious to know how Van Raak arrives at this image of Erasmus and how that image leads to connection. So on my bike to Rotterdam.
And I am not the only one, who is curious. The Arminius Debate Stage is filled with hundreds of interested people, who hear the opening by the rector magnificus and Van Raak’s lecture and join the discussion and panel debate. Some also stay for the drinks and mutual meetings. The people I speak to are particularly struck by how the university struggles with what you can and cannot say: Of course, you don’t want to hurt anyone by making controversial statements, but those who find every statement controversial and hurtful never learn anything. Remains as a value that you should think independently and speak about your own ideas with some humour (indeed, the latter seems Erasmian to me). Van Raak later also comes up with the well-known Erasmus quote: “A person is not born, but formed”, but then asks whether a university should want to form people. Is that humour, I then wonder.
For the discussion, I already have my question ready: “Erasmus writes that a good leader, a good ruler should always put the welfare of his subjects before his own interests. Isn’t that a great principle to instil in aspiring leaders during their studies?”. “That is a very good question;” replies Van Raak, “I’m glad you asked it. Certainly we need to have the conversation about …”. During the drinks afterwards, the interviewer asks me if I was happy with this response. She immediately answers her own question: “I don’t think so. I found it all rather vague and evasive”.
The Rotterdam Lecture is a gift from the university to the city to show how shared values can connect Rotterdammers. The date for the lecture was set much earlier at a time when no one in Rotterdam had dared to hope, that on the very morning of 15 May, the Feyenoord team would be honoured on the steps of City Hall as national champions 2022-23. That honouring certainly led to more connection in the city than this Rotterdam Lecture could possibly have achieved. Still, I am convinced that shared Erasmian values can lead to a longer-lasting bond between people also outside Rotterdam in Europe and beyond, but I doubt that it will succeed with the value-free values, which is what EUR is looking for.