President's Blog

The Mission of the University according to Ortega

A Mason colleague recently directed me to Spanish, 20th Century philosopher Ortega’s essay on the mission of the university (José Ortega y Gasset, 1931, Misión de la Universidad, pdf in Spanish). The text is indeed priceless and very pertinent for our ongoing task to craft a new mission statement for the university.  It raises questions about what we do, why we do it, and the type of education we should be providing.  I’ll spare you the reading by sharing my summary (though I recommend the original if you have the time and can read Spanish–there must be an English version on the Internet somewhere):

  • The university’s function is threefold: (a) transmitting culture, (b) providing professional education and (c) advancing science (including training new scientists) in that order.
  • The focus of the university must be on the education needed for the “average person” to become a good citizen.  This includes first culture and second professional education.
  • Culture is the core set of contemporary ideas about life and the world, ideas that help us make sense of our existence, that help us be human in our particular historic context, that give meaning to an otherwise aimless, chaotic life, that shape how we interact with the world around us.  Culture is the vital system of ideas of our time.
  • In our own historical context (even more so today than in 1931, I would argue), culture is made mostly of ideas that come from science.  But culture is not science.  Culture includes ideas about our physical world (physics), about our living world (biology), about the historic process of the human species (history), the structure and functioning of our social life (sociology) and our understanding of the universe (philosophy). But to have culture does not require that we become physicists or philosophers, that we master the technical and methodological aspects of these disciplines, only that we comprehend the key ideas these disciplines have produced.
  • Without culture, even those equipped with the most impressive professional credentials or the most advanced scientific knowledge are primitive, archaic, and rather dangerous barbarians.  Culture is particularly critical for people in positions of leadership (managers, government officials, judges, priests, doctors, teachers, etc.) because without understanding the vital ideas of our time, they would lead us astray or take us backwards.  Whether you are a engineer or a lawyer, without culture, you cannot be a leader.
  • The university must be cautious and not let excessive specialization and focus on science and professional education do away with the primary task of transmitting culture, because doing so could jeopardize our very civilization.
  • Universities must make a clear distinction between teaching a profession, which entails the application of the content of various sciences to solving a certain type of problem of value to others, and training a scientist, which entails the mastery of methods to incrementally push the limits of our knowledge in some discipline.  Every student must learn a profession (to be a a teacher, a nurse, an engineer, etc.) but not every student needs to become a scientist.
  • Science in the university does play an important role: to ensure cultural and professional education do not get stuck in the past, to question existing norms, to push the edge of our understanding.  But science is important inasmuch as it helps keep the educational mission up to date.  Universities are first and foremost educational institutions.
  • Finally, universities have the obligation to intervene in the most important issues of our time.  Universities need to become true “spiritual powers” in society, voices that use their cultural, professional and scientific strength as counterweight to journalistic, frivolous or plainly stupid accounts.