Rudolf Agricola chair for prof. K. van Berkel (2009)
On the 16th of February 2009, Klaas van Berkel, appointed Rudolf Agricola professor in History, accept the chair with a speech entitled ‘Academisch leven’ [Academic Life]. In this speech he granted us a brief glimpse of the way he would approach his new task; writing a history of the University of Groningen since its founding in 1614.
The appointment of Van Berkel as a research professor is related to the wish of the Board of the University to have a complete history of the institution by 2014, the year the University of Groningen celebrates its 400th birthday. A great deal has already been written about the history of the University. In 1864, Jonckbloet summarized the first 250 years, Huizinga provided a brilliant sketch of the nineteenth century, and the anniversary celebrations in 1964 and 1989 saw the publication of more books. Van Berkel does not merely want to produce a synthesis of these books; through new research he hopes to throw more light onto certain aspects and of course continue the story up to the start of the twenty-first century.
But what is university history about? University history is not the sum of the histories of education, research, management and administration, nor the contrasting of student life, professorial and other lecturer–related activities, not to mention the less visible but no less important work of administrators and politicians who draft the laws that rule the university. In Van Berkel’s opinion, the actual subject of a university history is academic life, that special type of cohabitation shared by students, lecturers, officials, managers and even by people who strictly speaking stand outside the domain of the university, from the wives of professors to the coachman on the student coach and even the Academy cat. The changing forms adopted by this extended academic community throughout history is the true subject of a history of a university.
In order to write such a history, a historian cannot be satisfied with the usual types of institutional, intellectual and social history. Van Berkel is borrowing one essential supplementary method from anthropology – by carefully describing even the everyday customs and habits he will try to discover why the members of the academic community behaved in the way they did. He will be regularly drawing on the ‘petite histoire’ of the university, the little anecdotes and tall stories, with the contrast with the ‘official’ story throwing light on how an academic community really functions. Certain initiation rituals in a laboratory say something about the diffuse border, characteristic of a university, between work and private life, which in turn reveals something about what the professors really thought about their position and how the relationship between the sexes really penetrated the day to day dealings of the university.
Klaas van Berkel (1953) studied History and Philosophy in Groningen, gaining his PhD in Utrecht in 1983 with a topic on early modern history of science. He then worked as a lecturer and professor for the Open University before joining the University of Groningen in 1988. He has written on the history of natural sciences in the Netherlands since 1580, on the science historian E.J. Dijksterhuis, on the University of Groningen during the German occupation, and on the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, of which he has been a member since 1997.
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