Ortega and the University


Enrique Gallud Jardiel
JNU News, núm. 4, Nueva Delhi, 1993


The collection of, writings, classes and speeches of José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) leave aside very few themes of true importance. The famous Spanish philosopher was the creator of the theory of Ratio-Vitalism, founder of the philosophical School of Madrid and, without any doubt, the most lucid and precise Spanish thinker. During a long tenure as Professor of Metaphysics for several decades he had ample opportunity to study from within the problems of the university, its objectives and functions and he wrote very enlightening pages on the subject.
Ortega starts destroying the myth that the academy makes a nation. It is erroneous to think that a nation is great because its schools are good; this is but a remnant of 19th century idealism. A great country has good educational institutions and, without them, it cannot prosper; but the same can be said of its religion, its politics, its economy and a thousand other things. The academy depends mainly on the external ambience and not so much on its internal and somehow artificial cultural, climate. Ortega connects this notion with his Vitalism: science is a major human achievement but human life is above it, because it is life which makes science possible. To close oneself in the ivory tower of academics leads to partial alienation and to the rise of an intellectual minority which lives apart from the country. How to avoid this risk is what Ortega tries to teach in his book Misión de la Universidad (The Mission of the University) which, although written in 1930, surprises us because of its complete pertinence in today's situation.
Any improvement in the university, he says, should be made according to its function:
An institution is a machine and its structure and functioning should be determined by the results expected from it. The key to universitary reform lies in precisely identifying its mission.

We generally accept that the university should be universalized, that is: it should be made available to the middle and lower classes. But this has to be done realistically. The university should not insist on teaching what should be taught utopically. It should teach that which could be taught, that is: that which could be learnt. As Leonardo da Vinci said: "Chi non puo quel che vuol, que che puo voglia". (He who cannot do what he wants, should want what he can do). Not respecting this basic principle results in the university accepting failure beforehand, since students cannot learn all which the syllabi include. The adjustment of teaching to the specific conditions of the students is the nucleus of the pedagogical approach of Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Frobel and the German idealists, whom Ortega clearly supports.
At a practical level, the philosopher proposes some specific attitudes and criteria, which he defines as "principles of universitary economy":
(a) The university comprises of the high education to be given to the average man in order to make him a learned man of his times.
(b) The cultural disciplines to be taught are :
1. Physical image of the world (Physics); 2. Fundamental themes of organic life (Biology); 3. Cultural development process of the human species (History); 4. Structure and functioning of social life (Sociology); 5. The question of the universe (Philosophy).
(c) The average man should be made a good professional. Through the most serious, efficacious and direct techniques, the university will teach how to be a good doctor, a good judge, etc., without forgetting the fact that science is something apart. Science is only research: to raise questions and
solve them. Being an advocate is something different to being a jurist; a doctor is not necessarily a physiologist and a language teacher is not
automatically a philologist. So, the teaching of intellectual careers should be considered as some thing different from scientific instruction. The
average man need not be a good researcher, since vocation towards science is something special and rare. The average student should not spend
time pretending to be a scientist.
(d) The selection of teachers should not be done keeping in mind the research capabilities of the candidates, but their synthetic and teaching abilities. Otherwise, the result would be faculty members who consider teaching as a secondary activity which hampers their real work in the laboratories or the archives.
(e) The disciplines should be pedagogically rationalized, in a synthetic, systematic and complete form, not as special problems, case studies or fragmentary research, as is usually done.
(f) After reducing the contents of the syllabi to a prudent measure in quantity and quality, the university should be rigid in the examination and
should not relax its requirements.
         Lastly, Ortega attacks the concept of macro-specialization, which leads to the removal of the most important thing from the university: culture and its transmission. Specialization is useful but it is not everything. Ortega insists that the scientist has to be humanized. The man of science should cease to be that which he is today with deplorable frequency: a barbarian who knows a lot about one single thing. The "general culture" must be preserved, he says; and culture, applied to the human spirit, cannot be but general. The concept of illustration and culture as an ornament with which some idle people adorn their lives should be done away with. Culture is an indispensable necessity of life: it is the interpretation of life itself. And, though the content of culture comes in a big way from science, science is not culture. The philosopher talks about the historical importance of returning to the university its tasks of illustrating man, of teaching him the culture and the times and of discovering with clarity and precision the present gigantic world.
I would make of a School of Culture the nucleus of the university and of all higher studies. In the "School of Culture, Physics would not be explained as if it were for physicist-mathematicians. The physics of culture would be the rigorous ideological synthesis of the figure and of the functioning of the material cosmos, according to the research done till date. That discipline would explain how the physicist knows things, which would compel the teacher to clarify the principles of physics and to sketch its historical evolution. The student would know how was the world in which his ancestors lived, thus getting full cognition of the peculiarities of our contemporary world.

And he advocates for the integration of knowledge as a peremtory necessity. The dispersion and complication of scientific work should not be augmented without being counteracted by the concentration and simplification of knowledge, for which specially synthetizing abilities should be developed. The School of Culture would foster a kind of scientific talent which till now has developed only by chance: the integrating talent, which would be the specialization dedicated to the formation of a cultural totality.