An opinion? Scandalous!
When the first ever student newspaper, De gekortwiekte Faam, was published in Utrecht, it was without precedent. Professors said it was a disgrace.
The founders remained anonymous. They feared that professors would grade their exams unfairly.
The newspaper did, however, fulfil an existing need. Increasingly more student newspapers emerged.
These newspapers not only covered student life, but they also began shaping it. ‘Students started feeling more connected.’
Personal development and a sense of shared identity were essential. Students had to remain politically neutral.
After 1890, that also changed. Students and professors felt compelled to address social issues.
This meant the end of general student newspapers. Local newspapers popped up, such as Der Clercke Cronike in Groningen.
Reading time: 7 minutes (1,281 words)
‘Scissors in the hands of children.’ This is how the professors from Utrecht described the student newspaper which had been founded by a group of three students in 1825. De gekortwiekte Faam was its name, and its aim was to be an ‘academy newspaper’; a newspaper with trivia about student life. Attention was paid to promotions and exams, but there were also reportages on stage productions, society coverage and book reviews.
But it was not as easy as it sounds. Students who had an opinion on something? That was unprecedented. ‘Up until that point, students were seen as children at university, as it were’, says Annelies Noordhof, who will receive her PhD this week for her research into the emergence of student newspapers in the Netherlands. ‘The professors took over the role of the parents. Some students even rented rooms in the houses of professors.’
Students had an admittedly unusual position in society. They had a special academic court that would judge them if they made any missteps. However, they were not full fledged partners in discussions. It seemed that out of the blue, students suddenly had opinions. And that was ‘pretty remarkable’, says Noordhof.
Even for adults, having an opinion or debating critically was not something that was common at the time. ‘You have to remember: we were in the period just after the establishment of the Dutch kingdom’, says Noordhof. ‘Personal development and a sense of shared identity were of great importance, and speaking critically was disapproved of. It was a very different social climate.’
This was why the founders of the student newspaper preferred to remain anonymous. ‘If our identities were to be uncovered, we could find ourselves being unfairly graded on our exams’, they wrote in their first issue. ‘Once the professors find out that students are involved in the newspaper, whether they deem the whole thing child’s play or presume that our intentions are dangerous, they will certainly not approve of it.’
Club of rebels
But it became clear pretty quickly who the founders were: law student Jona Hora Siccama, from a respectable lineage from Groningen; Cornelis Star Numan, also originally from Groningen; and Pieter Nicolaas Arntzenius. All three had experience in publishing student year books, and their fathers had also published magazines, albeit after their student years. ‘For them, creating a newspaper was perhaps a more obvious choice than for the majority of students’, Noordhof says.
The consequences were not so bad after all, however. They remained formally anonymous, but the rumours of their identities spread rapidly. The academic community was still small, after all: everyone knew each other. The founders also considered it an honour to belong to a club of rebels.
There were considerable obstacles to overcome before the first issue was published. ‘For one thing, the printers from Utrecht did not dare to publish the paper. The students had to go to Amsterdam to find a printer who would publish it’, says Noordhof. The beadle refused to inform he students where and when their exams were being held. Professors called the paper ‘an Academic Advertisement paper, and a cause with long term repercussions: scissors in the hands of children’. Imagine if students began criticising other universities? What sorts of consequences could that have?
The founders themselves had their doubts. Did they actually have the right to review a professor’s book? They were only ‘boys’, after all, and the difference between the status of a professor and the inherently lower status of a student had to ‘remain great at all times’.
The difference between the status of a professor and the inherently lower status of a student had to ‘remain great at all times’.
Even so, the student paper quickly became a household name. The reflections on higher education caused discussions; there was, for example, a paper ‘serenade’ which had to convince a professor to stay, and the request that the beadle mount hooks in the lecture halls so that students could hang up their hats. And then there was a piece in which a member of the editorial board questioned whether girls could dress just as nicely without a corset, seeing as it was far healthier for them to do without. That was downright scandalous.
De gekortwiekte Faam was published more or less on a monthly basis for two years and reached far beyond Utrecht. Bookshops in other cities also sold the paper or made it possible for subscribers to pick up their copies there. There were also the copies sent to Groningen, Amsterdam and Maastricht.
The student paper phenomenon did not come to an end when the editorial members received their PhDs and the paper ultimately went out of business. In Groningen, Leiden and Utrecht, other papers had gone as quickly as they came. ‘You see, if one of the editors of the UK quits, then there’s a vacancy’, Noordhof explains. ‘The UK is an institution, it will stay in business. But this was not the same for the other papers. However, the fact that they were popping up all over the place indicates that there was a demand for them.’
It took until 1864 – when the national paper Vox Studiosorum saw the light – that a publication came into existence which remained independent of its editorial board.
But something remarkable happened, notes Noordhof. These papers, which were often no more than one or two pages, described student life, but they also began to influence it. ‘Students started feeling more connected’, says Noordhof. ‘It created a sense of community. They discussed society initiations, the question of whether it was time to stop having dictated lectures, and the use of Latin.’
Studies day and night, does not drink wine and does not go to pubs or brothels
When Vox editor Cort van der Linden wrote an enthusiastic review of the book Akademieleven – which was about student life – he made it clear to his audience what he thought that student life should be. ‘He did not preach: ‘studies day and night, does not drink wine and does not go to pubs or brothels’. No, he said, be high-spirited, but serious. […] shapes you for society.’
That was what it was all about: self-development. It was thus extremely important that students pulled together. The fact that there was a group of around 30 ‘chic’ aristocratic people who distinguished themselves from everyone else in their dining and living habits, but did not want to become members of a society, was seen as a serious problem. A similar issue was also apparent in Groningen. In 1868, the aristocrats opposed the democrats in Groningen, and the aristocrats refused to fill managerial positions.
Van der Linden called for the new members to find a way to get along with each other: the son of a conservative – for whom the word liberal was ‘a discordant sound’ and radical ‘a swear word’- would get to know liberals and radicals in the society: ‘He shall find them at the society and through friendly, sociable treatment, he shall realise that a liberal can pair a kind heart with a clear head, and that a radical can be a gentleman.’
The student paper took an important position in the public debate about the goal and organisation of time spent studying. ‘It was a place where discussions took place, responses were given and it was decided what your opinion as a student should be.’ It also led to interconnectedness and unity among students.
The glory days of the general, national student newspapers lasted until the end of the century. After this, the landscape changed pretty quickly. ‘The number of students increased and not all of them felt that publications such as Vox and Minerva were for them’, Noordhof thinks. ‘In these papers, there was no room for political discussions. A student should not concern himself with politics. But many students and professors were truly interested in social issues. This caused the national student newspapers to lose their positions as general student newspapers.’
The way the university represents itself always says something about its identity.
Smaller, more locally-focused papers popped up, ‘such as Propria Cures, which still exists’, says Noordhof. Groningen held onto Minerva for quite a while, but Der Clercke Cronicke come on to the scene in 1923 as the predecessor of the UK.
‘The student newspapers were fully-fledged’, says Noordhof. ‘They were here to stay in the academic world. As a forum for debate of current affairs, they pushed the community in certain direction.’ And that has not changed: ‘The way in which a university represents itself always says something about the identity of the university.’