The Mission of the University – Then and now

Dr. Donna L. Roberts
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What is the true purpose of our institutions of higher learning?

Ortega (1944) defined four primary missions of the “modern” university: the teaching of the learned professions, the fostering of scientific research, training for political leadership, and finally the creation of cultured persons with the ability to make intellectual interpretations of the world. 

Written long before mission statements became a trendy management tool, Mission of the University succinctly and specifically delineated the foundational objectives of the complex university system. Ortega y Gasset’s conclusions, written over 75 years ago, resound with timeless relevance and have served as the guiding expression of the institutions’ reason for being. Like educational philosophers both before and after his time, he envisioned education as serving a social and civic function.

Ortega y Gasset conceived of the university as society’s primary and most important repository of collective knowledge. As such, he further considered the university as obligated to satisfy the needs of the larger society in three main areas: the transmission of culture – i.e., the vital system of values and ideas attained through the totality of human experience; the teaching of the professions; and the search for new knowledge, including both scientific research and the training of new scientists. In his evaluation of the university’s performance with regard to its triad of purpose, Ortega y Gasset concluded that the teaching of the professions and search for new knowledge were well executed, but that the transmission of culture was rarely and haphazardly undertaken. He considered that the university fell dramatically short of fulfilling its mission to transmit the collective values, ideas and culture.

While reading Mission of the University today it is easy to forget that Ortega y Gasset was writing about a time period some 75 years in the past. His observations and criticisms seem so precisely in tune with the shortcomings and challenges of the modern institution and contemporary society. In particular, he wrote, “Hence the historic importance to the university is its cardinal function of ‘enlightenment,’ the task of imparting the full culture of the time and revealing to mankind, with clarity and truthfulness, that gigantic world of today in which the life of the individual must be articulated, if it is to be authentic” (p. 65).

Especially in our western culture we have lost the holistic meaning of “enlightenment” and most often narrowly focus our educational efforts on a single separated aspect of a separated individual. We have lost the sense of community and contribution to the greater collective good as we have emphasized personal resumes and career paths. Ortega y Gasset encourages us to use the institution of the university to fulfill the age-old axiom, “know thyself” and by doing so thus come to know others and contribute to an uplifting of the human condition. This duality so often referred to by educational philosophers, has implications for both how and what is taught at the university as well as for what is done with that knowledge and insight once it is learned.


Ortega y Gasset, J. (1944). Mission of the university. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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