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Klaas van Berkel retires

The university’s memory

He still needs to finish the last instalment in his series Universiteit van het Noorden, but last week, academic historian Klaas van Berkel already said goodbye to the UG. He says history taught him to be optimistic. ‘If they could do it back then, why couldn’t we do it now?’
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Door Christien Boomsma

11 March om 11:57 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:15 uur.
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By Christien Boomsma

March 11 at 11:57 AM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:15 PM.
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Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio »
Background coordinator and science editor Full bio »

For a second, he was made to feel what it was like to no longer be part of things. Klaas van Berkel, the historian who wrote three heavy tomes about the history of the UG and countless others about the academic revolution and history of the university, the same man who had been a professor in Groningen for more than thirty-two years, a KNAW member for twenty-two, turned sixty-six years and four months old.

As he was now eligible for a pension, he immediately got an e-mail from the university library, requesting him to return the more than hundred books he was borrowing from them. And no, he was not allowed to renew them online.

The fact that his zero-hour contract would take effect a week later, so he could finish the third and final part of Universiteit van het Noorden (University of the North), didn’t matter. ‘It took a lot of doing’, he says, shaking his head. ‘I thought I’d taken care of everything: my internet access and my staff number, but apparently not.’

To be able to go on working took a lot of doing

The UB staff had to manually renew each book to prevent the UG’s most famous historian from having to get a wheelbarrow to return all his reference books. ‘Borrowing any new books was also completely impossible. I kept having to go to HR… I guess it wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me. I’d just have to find something else to do for a week.’

Yet the future loomed. At some point, Van Berkel will have to leave his heart and soul, the UG, behind. At his farewell symposium, his colleagues gave him the booklet Hier sta ik, kan niet(s) anders (Here I am, it’s all I know (to do)), about how academics is a calling.

Early modern period

‘I never regretted choosing to study history’, he says. ‘But over the years I did wonder if I had any other skills. What if the university suddenly closed down, would I still be able to make a living?’

No one was looking for a middle-aged history teacher. And while he’d originally wanted to study biology, he was thwarted when the placement committee wanted to send him to the VU, when he was set on going to Groningen. 

I did start to wonder if I had any other skills

Fortunately, no one ever fired him. Once he’d started in Groningen, the classes about Erasmus and Rudolf Agricola, taught by Edzo Waterbolk, evoked something in him. ‘I started out being interested in the Middle Ages, knights and all that’, says Van Berkel. ‘I figured I would just have to grin and bear the stuff in between before we’d get to the good part in the nineteenth century.’

Alas. He’s since realised that the Middle Ages are too far removed, and the nineteenth century is too recent. The period in between, however, the academic history of the early modern period, was the perfect mix between the ‘other’ he was so fascinated by and the familiarity he so needs. 

Little tales

This shows in his work. Van Berkel is a natural storyteller who’s always looking to answer the question of what it was like back then. ‘I want to make history tangible’, he says. ‘I may not have any evocative skills, but I do have a need to make things real. To enable people to relate.’

Universiteit van het Noorden, therefore, doesn’t just cover the big things that happened in the history of the university; it also tells of the beadle who kept goats in the attic at the Academy building and invited students for ‘brothel discussions’. He writes about the unfortunate professor Van Ankum who lost his entire collection of stuffed animals in the Academy building fire, save for the little squirrel he’d just happened to take him with that day.

The here and now is not the absolute benchmark

He tries to answer questions like: did Zernike treat people to cake or mollebonen when he won the Nobel Prize in 1953? ‘I’m always hunting around for these little tales. They may not necessarily be all that important, but they allow the reader to imagine how things were back then.’

That’s important. History is important. Not because, as the programme itself puts it, they train people to work in various societal positions. Not because we ‘should learn from history’. ‘We historians provide a long-term perspective in a social debate that often focuses on the short term.’ 


Take migration. Once you realise that the Netherlands has had several migration waves and that problems emerged when different religions had to learn to coexist, it can be useful to look back at how people dealt with it. ‘Not to look for an example, but to understand and realise that we’ve always been better for it.’ 

Before the Reformation, Van Berkel explains, people assumed that cohesion between different religions was impossible within a single country. Even after the Reformation, people were still panicking. ‘The Calvinists tried to bend everything to their will. It was a complicated situation, with the Roman Catholics, the Mennonites, the Calvinists… People had to learn how to live with each other’s differences, but they managed to find a solution.’

This gives hope. ‘It may not be easy, but if they could do it back then, why couldn’t we do it now? People want everything to be taken care of right now. But we have to acknowledge that things will be difficult and that sometimes, things will be unfair. The here and now is not the absolute benchmark.’ 


Historians, and academics in general, need time to do their research and provide that perspective to society. But this is no longer a matter of course. Last month, Van Berkel and Carmen van Bruggen published a collection in which they conclude that academic freedom, the freedom to be critical of and outspoken about the institutes that employ you, is under pressure. The reason for this? The commercialisation of universities. 

Working in academia is an uncertain existence; people should accept that

The 1950s gave rise to the discussion of whether professors were also allowed to work for Philips. The professors earned a little extra money, but didn’t it interfere with the purity of science? Back then, administrators warned people not to serve two masters. 

But by now it’s become almost commonplace. It’s all about efficiency and commercialisation and bringing in your own funds. It’s a slippery slope, not because universities should be able to account for how they use public funds, but because total efficiency is impossible. ‘Working in academia is an uncertain existence. People should accept that’, says Van Berkel.

Aberrant views

What’s probably more important, this change limits academic candour. The academic community is held together by its common values, says Van Berkel, as well as the fact that its members are able to criticise their masters and share aberrant views. But even that is no longer obvious. ‘Although I have a more positive outlook than I used to’, he says. 

Nevertheless, he’s worried about the closed-off study and science programmes as the opportunity to freely make choices continues to decline. Insightful courses that teach people academic responsibility no longer exist. ‘When they are needed for a solid form of academic freedom.’

But he’s still a historian, and as a historian, he’s optimistic. ‘Academic freedom is something we created ourselves once. That means we can change and tailor it.’

Klaas van Berkel, Een en al illusies. Cultuurhistorische opstellen (Prometheus, 2020)

Klaas van Berkel & Carmen van Bruggen (ed.) Academische vrijheid. Geschiedenis en actualiteit (Boom, 2020)


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