The Mission of the University: Revisiting Ortega y Gasset

As we continue to navigate this unprecedented era with challenges and opportunities in so many different domains, one can ask: How can universities best help?

In a reasonable response to market trends and in their quest for survival many universities-public and private- may be marginalizing their mission of educating the citizenry upon which free democratic

societies rest upon, to focus increasingly on offering work skills to individuals entering the labor market. Nothing wrong with preparing students to earn a living, but universities forgetting the pivotal role of general education may be falling short of fulfilling their true “raison de être”.

Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) was an intellectual in the best sense. He rose above partisan and professional boundaries to be critical and independent minded. As a journalist, publisher, politician, teacher, philosopher and sociologist his mind was always at work trying to understand society and its challenges. He was well aware of the interdependence between universities and society; the fruitful interplay between the university’s organized critical knowledge and the lessons men learn in the school of experience.

Ortega was also keenly aware of the practical consequences of ideas and their power to transform reality. His success in teaching was due to his influence and effectiveness in speeding the student’s discovery of the problems and his arrival at responsible views of his own. Without requiring any individual to believe as he did, he inspired his pupils to surpass themselves in power, knowledge, and humane purposiveness.

Ortega believed the guided self-development of individuals was the very life process of any good educational institution. The pursuit of a common understanding of reality, that is both stable and evolving (as opposed to malleable and radical), and far from the blind and inadequate allegiance to party or credo.

He saw that it was impossible to consider our own civilization as static or final and that if humanity may be expected to evolve through unseen new variations, man may perhaps be able to influence the future of civilization towards undreamed-of realizations of man’s higher nature.

Although without guarantee of success, Ortega believed that on the university falls the responsibility of leadership in the two processes essential to general education: first, to synthesize the best of our common human nature, and second, to make this basis for enlightened living an influence for good across society.

In closing, it seems timely to reflect upon Ortega’s assertion:

“If we could solve the problem of general education, we could confidently strike any third world war off the calendar. General education means the whole development of an individual, apart from his occupational training. It includes the civilizing of his life purposes, the refining of his emotional reactions, and the maturing of his understanding about the nature of things according to the best knowledge of our time.”

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