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On Monday you might encounter some drag queens on the esplanade, on Tuesday you could try your hand at bronc riding on a huge vibrator, on Wednesday you can express your graffiti talents on a wall in broad daylight and on Thursday you can try out ‘enlightened partying’. What is going on? Nothing special, it is just that the Study Circle of Free Inquiry and the Brussels Students’ Association (BSGgtgv) are organising the annual action week on Enlightenment from 19 to 22 March. This year’s theme is ‘taboos’.
Unfortunately, the above-mentioned activities are the only ones that do not require knowledge of Dutch, and they are only intended to attract spectators to the core activities taking place in the evenings: lectures and debates on anonymous sperm donors, censorship, eugenics, and sex for disabled people. In short, the overarching theme is Taboo. Which is, not surprisingly, almost the opposite of free inquiry.
At the VUB there are two sorts of Free Inquiry: the first one is the principle of this notion, on which the University was founded in 1834, whereas the second one is a student organisation, the Study Circle of Free Inquiry (literal translation of ‘Studiekring Vrij Onderzoek’, in short VO). We will try to explain both here, without, however, going into too much detail, as in fact, we are dealing with a never-ending story.
The origin of the principle of free inquiry
This principle stems from the intellectual progress of the Enlightenment, which questioned old traditions within societies and governments, but it was only in the 19th century that it spread all over Europe alongside liberalism. In 1833, Catholic bishops founded a new university in Mechelen (Mechlin), which would later move to Leuven. In reaction to this development, Theodore Verhaegen and Auguste Baron established the ULB (l’Université libre de Bruxelles) to guarantee freedom of education. In those days, free inquiry was impossible both in Leuven and at the state universities in Ghent and Liège. Still, it took many years and two institutional crises for the principle to be written down in 1894 as article one, that read: “This institution of higher education is founded on free inquiry.”
In 1969, the VUB adheres to the same principle, which was defined in 1994 as follows: “The Vrije Universiteit Brussel grounds its research and education on the principle of free inquiry in the interest of the progression of mankind. This entails the rejection of any authoritarian argument, as well as the free exercise of judgement, which is necessary for the social implementation of this basic principle.” On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ULB, on the 21st November 1909, Henri Poincaré eloquently translated this principle into his famous words: “Thinking must never submit itself, neither to a dogma, nor to a party, nor to a passion, nor to an interest, nor to a preconceived idea, nor to whatever it may be, save to the facts themselves, because, for thought, submission to anything else would mean ceasing to be.”
The Study Circle Free Inquiry
Little is known about the origins of the ‘Cercle du Libre Examen’, which was founded in 1928. However, we do know that the initiative has its origins in science students fearing that the University was failing to live up to its standards. In the 1930s, the study circle would gain importance when they took a stand against fascism. In 1937, Jan Du Four, president of the Flemish Brussels association of student organisations ‘No language no freedom’ (‘Geen taal geen vrijheid’) (BSGgtgv) and at the same time vice-president of the Circle of Free Inquiry, openly spoke out against Rexism and other totalitarian movements. When he later refused the proposals of the Nazis to set up a Flemish university, he was imprisoned.
After the war, in 1949, the Flemish ‘Studiekring Vrij Onderzoek’ was founded within the BSG. That same year, the ULB decided to organise Flemish courses in the law faculty. In 1967, BSGgtgv and VO split up due to different viewpoints on the struggles in Leuven, where BSG supported the Flemish demands whilst VO feared that doing so would reinforce the power of the Catholics.
The study circle has had its ups and downs, but they have been remarkably active over the past few decades. They have helped to house refugees in university buildings, regularly organised debaptism ceremonies, free thinkers campfires, and so on. The first action week of the Enlightenment took place in 2011 and was organised jointly by BSGgtgv and VO, thus raising above former conflicts and encouraging students to reflect on any issue that might hamper the progression of mankind, like taboos for instance. Because, as you know, thinking may never submit itself!