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On Monday evening at a packed Lotto Arena in Antwerp, VUB rector Caroline Pauwels presented an honorary doctorate to Yuval Noah Harari. In her speech she praised the renowned author of Sapiens, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century as a historian who looks beyond borders and not only reports history but builds on it. 


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“In Harari we have an outstanding guide to show us the possibilities and dangers of future developments,” Pauwels said. She also dedicated the award to the young people of the 21st century, represented by the 21 VUB students who stood behind her on the stage. “They will have to make the right choices.”


With the award for Harari, VUB is adding another major name to its list of honorary doctors. The Israeli historian, born in 1976, regularly tops best-seller lists around the world with books in which he shines a light on the past, the present and the future of humanity. His most recent book, 21 Lessons for the 21st century, was published in 2018 and deals with the era in which we now live. Before that, he wrote Homo Deus, about the future, and Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.


The subtitle of Sapiens is no exaggeration: in just 250 pages he sketches the history of homo sapiens, from the Stone Age to the present. He highlights four major milestones: the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, the union of humanity and the scientific revolution.


“For me, the power of science is not fiction,” Pauwels said, referring to the overarching insight in Harari’s books, namely that fiction is one of humanity’s most efficient tools, for good purposes as well as bad. “The power of science gives us hope, it strengthens our conviction that we can make the world a better place.” She cited the rapid developments in the fields of medicine and artificial intelligence. “How old will the oldest person in the 21st century be?” she wondered, and will we still be the best at what we can do? “It’s a long time since we were the best chess players.”


Harari officially received the title of Doctor Honoris Causa of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in recognition for his powerful and ground-breaking insights as a historian, thinker and author of human history, and for his provocative and disruptive views about contemporary society and the world of tomorrow. He received the diploma and medal from Caroline Pauwels and Eddy Van Gelder, chair of the board of VUB. 


After the presentation of the honorary doctorate in front of a huge crowd, Harari gave a keynote speech followed by a Q&A session. It is the first time he has made a public appearance in the Benelux. He was invited by the Belgian edition of Newsweek, one of the most important news magazines in the US.


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