José Ortega y Gasset was a Spanish professor, philosopher, publisher, editor, essayist, and political leader. A passionate, uncompromising, and complex thinker, he was the most significant person to come from Spain in the first half of the twentieth century. Ortega y Gasset was a prolific writer; his work took the form not only of books, but also of essays, journal articles, and even articles for the newspapers.
Ortega y Gasset was educated in Spain, obtaining his Ph.D. from the University of Madrid in 1904. He went on to postdoctoral studies in Germany, returning in 1910 to a professorship in Madrid, where he served until he left Spain at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. From that point on, his life moved between posts in South America, North America, and Europe until his death in 1955.
Ortega y Gasset’s incisive critique of higher education matured throughout his lifetime and remains relevant to contemporary discourse on the nature and proper function of colleges and universities. Over the course of his life, he moved from an early Neo-Kantian idealism to a vitalistic middle period that placed much greater emphasis on the emerging life of the average individual in a culture. His mature educational conceptions were his most pungent: A university existed to teach the essentials (abstract “research” and advanced science did not qualify) and to teach those essentials to the average person so that the main body of a society might learn the contours of its own culture in its own historical setting. Only then would these students be able to critique that culture and forge creative new possibilities within their own circumstances.
The mission of higher education, then, ought to be to provoke a creative crisis or turmoil in individuals so that they might find their own way in their own generation. And much of what was to be found in the modern university by 1930 was, in Ortega y Gasset’s estimation, an enormous roadblock to this larger end.
Ortega y Gasset’s prolific writings include Mission of the University (1944), History as a System: Essays Toward a Philosophy of History (1941), and The Dehumanization of Art; and Other Essays on Art, Culture, and Literature (1956).
- McClintock, R. (1971). Man and his circumstances: Ortega as educator. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Ortega y Gasset, J. (1944). Mission of the university (H. L. Nostrand, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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