Why would we need erudition anyway

Is there anyone who still knows what the term 'erudition' means? This university doesn't recognize it, doesn't use it and certainly doesn't reward it. And that, argues Tjeerd Andringa, is bad news.

Since 2007 is the Dutch variant of the word ‘erudition’ (‘eruditie’) no longer actively used at the RUG website; and before 2007 it was mainly used in necrologies. Has ‘erudition’ become a superfluous concept? A quick poll under students indicates that the term is unknown by about half. So what are we talking about?

Erudition is the intellectual depth, refinement, and breadth resulting from top education. Erudition is often interpreted as the curious habit to enrich any situation, appropriately or not, with a suitable quote, a related master piece, or a long forgotten insight. That interpretation misses its essence: erudition proofs itself as an exceedingly well developed understanding of the world-as-it-is (in contrast to what we superficially think it is). And that is why it is so relevant: erudition is the effective combination of a well developed intellect, broad and specialist knowledge, and above all a highly developed sense of reality.


The modern career scientist at the RUG is not selected on erudition. Quite on the contrary, publications, impact factors, and grants count more; a broader interests than the research specialism is interpreted as a lack of focus and consequently a liability. This leads to the selection of hyper-intelligent super specialists who, outside the scope of their specialism, understand the world just as inadequately as the rest of society.

Erudition makes a difference here. The erudite person has learned that certain insights are so fundamental and universal that they form a generic basis for deep and pervasive understanding. This understanding enables the effective and consistent integration of expert knowledge of for example medicine, religion, economy, geopolitics, biotechnology, and linguistics and to apply this constructively to large-scale developments in the world. This fosters a sense of reality that is incomparably richer and more effective than the shallow and focused world view of the scientific specialist or average reader of the mainstream media.

Sense of reality

And a well developed sense of reality is exactly what students need to learn to prepare for the rest of life. The American Association of Colleges and Universities concludes:

“Student success in college cannot be documented—as it usually is—only in terms of enrollment, persistence, and degree attainment. These widely used metrics, while important, miss entirely the question of whether students who have placed their hopes for the future in higher education are actually achieving the kind of learning they need for a complex and volatile world.”

Erudition is the intellectual capacity needed to cope with a complex and volatile world. And there is nothing mysterious about it: as long as one’s intellectual development is not arrested, anyone with an inquisitive mind will become erudite. And this is the key point: did we create a system that discourages erudition — and a highly developed sense of reality—among students and staff? Will students never be consciously familiarized with individuals with a truly highly developed intellect? Do they therefore have no inkling about how much further they might develop their own intellectual capacities?


The founding documents of the RUG dated July 14th, 1614, stress the role of top education for good and wise governance. However, wisdom is even more demanding than erudition: in addition to an erudite sense of reality, wisdom requires the capacity to create an environment in which everyone can blossom.

Are RUG students and staff stimulated to blossom intellectually? Or is the current focus on degree attainment and impact factors a distraction?

Fortunately, erudition is not rare among staff and students. But it is hardly recognized, unused, and definitely not rewarded. And that is a serious danger: a university without erudition looses its universality and with that its reason d’ être.

Will the RUG make erudition and intellectual development central again in 2014? Or will we after 400 year decide to drop ‘universality’ and change the University’s name in the ‘Speciality of Groningen’.

Dr. Tjeerd Andringa
senior researcher at the institute of artificial intelligence of the RUG


→Everyone, student or staff, who wants to help to make erudition and intellectual development more prominent can mail ideas and plans to erudition@ai.rug.nl. We’ll start a mailing list or discussion forum. For reactions and plans click on this website

9 april 2013 –