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The 100th Anniversary of Walter J. Ong's Birth

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) November 27, 2012: This Friday, November 30, 2012, will be the 100th anniversary of the birth of the American cultural historian and theorist Walter Jackson Ong, S.J. (1912-2003) of Saint Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri. His family name is English; for centuries, the family name was spelled "Onge"; it is probably related to the English name "Yonge."

I took my first course from Fr. Ong in the fall semester of 1964 at Saint Louis University. In short order, I was hooked on reading his stuff, beginning at that time with essays in his collection titled THE BARBARIAN WITHIN: AND OTHER FUGITIVE ESSAYS AND STUDIES (Macmillan, 1962). But I was also hooked on reading books he mentioned, not for credit in any course I was taking from him, but for the fun of learning more about them. Even though I did not know it at the time, I had found the destiny for my adult life by studying his work and related work for the fun of learning about these interesting topics.

Over the years, I have helped edit five collections of Ong's essays (1992a, 1992b, 1995, 1999, 2002), and I have published a book-length study of his work, WALTER ONG'S CONTRIBUTIONS TO CULTURAL STUDIES: THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF THE WORD AND I-THOU COMMUNICATION (Hampton Press, 2000; revised edition forthcoming), which provides a reader's guide to 11 of Ong's books. With certain notable exceptions, most of my professional publications could accurately be characterized as Ong studies, studies of different themes that Ong himself discusses in his work. Thus far, I appear to be the most productive scholar engaged in the admittedly under-developed field of Ong studies. So it strikes me as fitting for me to write something for publication at OpEdNews on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Ong's birth.

Over several decades, Ong received a mostly respectful hearing from scholars of his generation -- the generation that includes Tom Brokaw's "greatest generation" -- but Ong's thought was never lionized by scholars or by the press, as was the thought of his friend and former teacher at Saint Louis University Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980).

Perhaps Ong's thought never will be lionized by scholars or the press. His thought is admittedly multi-dimensional and complicated, as I hope to show briefly in the last part of this essay. But his multi-dimensional thought does offer us a penetrating way to explain the emergence of modernity in Western culture. For Ong examines what are in effect the infrastructures of Western cultural development, the infrastructures that contributed to the historical emergence of modernity.

How many books have been written about the historical emergence of modernity in Western culture that do not take into account the infrastructures of Western cultural conditioning that Ong examines? For all practical purposes, those many books about the historical development of modernity were written by extraverts preoccupied with superficial details, instead of studying the more penetrating infrastructures of Western cultural conditioning that Ong examines.

Now, in Ong's religious writings he writes from the standpoint of an orthodox Catholic priest. I myself do not share all of Ong's Christian and Catholic religious convictions. Nevertheless, I usually benefit from reading his religious writings, and I imagine that others who do not share all of his religious convictions could also benefit from reading his religious writings such as his early collections titled FRONTIERS IN AMERICAN CATHOLICISM (Macmillan, 1957) and AMERICAN CATHOLIC CROSSROADS (Macmillan, 1959) and his books THE PRESENCE OF THE WORD: SOME PROLEGOMENA FOR CULTURAL AND RELIGIOUS HISTORY (Yale University Press, 1967), the expanded version of Ong's 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University, and HOPKINS, THE SELF, AND GOD (University of Toronto Press, 1986), the published version of Ong's 1981 Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto.

However, for readers who would prefer to avoid Ong's religious writings, he delineates the core of his account of Western cultural history in the following books: RAMUS, METHOD, AND THE DECAY OF DIALOGUE: FROM THE ART OF DISCOURSE TO THE ART OF REASON (Harvard University Press, 1958), RHETORIC, ROMANCE, AND TECHNOLOGY: STUDIES IN THE INTERACTION OF EXPRESSION AND CULTURE (Cornell University Press, 1971), INTERFACES OF THE WORD: STUDIES IN THE EVOLUTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND CULTURE (Cornell University Press, 1977), FIGHTING FOR LIFE: CONTEST, SEXUALITY, AND CONSCIOUSNESS (Cornell University Press, 1981), the published version of Ong's 1979 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University), and ORALITY AND LITERACY: THE TECHNOLOGIZING OF THE WORD (Methuen, 1982), which has gone through more than 30 printings in English and has been translated into 11 other languages. AN ONG READER: CHALLENGES FOR FURTHER INQUIRY, edited by me and Paul A. Soukup (Hampton Press, 2002) is a fine survey of Ong's thought.

In what follows here, I will first survey and highlight Ong's life and scholarly career; then I will discuss the most salient features of his thought regarding the historical emergence of modernity in Western culture.

Ong's Life and Scholarly Career

Fr. Ong's family ancestors left East Anglia on the same ship that brought Roger Williams to Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. Fr. Ong's middle name (Jackson) commemorates his family's relative, President Andrew Jackson.

Fr. Ong's mother was a Roman Catholic. As a result, he received most of his formal education in Catholic educational institutions, except for his doctoral studies in English at Harvard University, long a bastion of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) culture.

But his father, Walter Jackson Ong, Sr., was a Protestant. As a result, young Walter Jr. grew up in an extended family that included both Protestants and Catholics, but evidently no other religious traditions. By contrast, many American Catholics in his day grew up in and lived in a Catholic subculture that certain Catholic authors have characterized as a Catholic ghetto. I, for example, at a later time grew up in and was educated in the Catholic ghetto culture, which is still alive and well in the United States today, thanks in large measure to the Catholic educational system. In other words, Catholics in the United States had historically been discriminated against by anti-Catholic elements in WASP culture, as were African Americans, Jews, and others. American Catholics responded to historical anti-Catholic fervor by constructing a parallel subculture of their own, as did African Americans and Jews and other groups. But Fr. Ong transcended the limitations of the American Catholic ghetto culture and infiltrated WASP culture by getting his Ph.D. in English from Harvard University in May 1955 and in other ways as well.

By the time that Ong went to Harvard for his doctoral studies in English, he had completed three graduate degrees (in English, philosophy, and theology) as part of his training as a Jesuit and had been ordained a priest. Before he entered the Jesuit novitiate in September 1935, he had majored in Latin as an undergraduate (class of 1933) at Rockhurst College (now Rockhurst University) in Kansas City, Missouri. At the time of his Jesuit training, all courses in philosophy for Jesuits were taught in Latin, as were courses in theology for Jesuits. As a result, Ong was fluent in Latin by the time when he started his doctoral studies at Harvard. In his letter of June 24, 1947 to Perry Miller at Harvard University, Ong says, "I read Latin, French, German, Spanish, and can make my way through Greek."

In his book THE NEW ENGLAND MIND: THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY (Harvard University Press, 1939), Perry Miller discussed the work of the French logician and educational reformer and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572) as well as he could. When Harvard College was founded in 1636, the founders and the early faculty had all studied Ramus's logic at Cambridge University in East Anglia. So Ramus's logic had been instituted as part of the curriculum at Harvard College in its early years. However, by the 1930s when Miller was studying Ramus's influence in New England, Ramus was no longer well known, as he had been in his own lifetime and in the century or so after his death. As a result, Miller called for someone to undertake a more thorough study of Ramus.

When Ong was a young Jesuit seminarian in studies at Saint Louis University in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the young Canadian Marshall McLuhan was teaching English there as he worked on his Cambridge University doctoral dissertation in which he undertook to situate Thomas Nashe in the context of the learning of his times. By the learning of Nashe's time, McLuhan meant the learning transmitted through formal education, especially the verbal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (also known as logic). As a result of his own scholarly interests, McLuhan read Miller's book THE NEW ENGLAND MIND: THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY (1939) because Ramus's work in logic was also part of the educational milieu in Nashe's time in England. When Ong was in graduate studies in English and in philosophy at Saint Louis University, McLuhan called Ong's attention to Miller's book. (McLuhan's Cambridge University doctoral dissertation was accepted in 1943. In 1944, McLuhan left Saint Louis University and took a position in Canada.)

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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Walter J. Ong's understanding of Western cultural ... by Thomas Farrell on Tuesday, Nov 27, 2012 at 3:09:58 PM