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Mitt Romney versus Walter Ong on What's Important in Our Western Cultural Heritage

By       Message Thomas Farrell     Permalink
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Over the years, Ong attempted to identify and name a certain key variable in Western cultural development using somewhat different terminology. Consider, for example, the subtitle of his first major book, RAMUS, METHOD, AND THE DECAY OF DIALOGUE: FROM THE ART OF DISCOURSE TO THE ART OF REASON (Harvard University Press, 1958). The art of discourse fostered through formal education in dialectic (also known as logic) and rhetoric in Western culture for centuries before the French logician and educational reformer and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572) programmatically trained students in the polemical structures of pro-and-con debate in dialectic and rhetoric. But in theory, Ramus's educational reforms were less polemical and more irenic in spirit. For example, in theory, Ramus and his followers did away with refuting any real or imagined adversarial positions. In practice, of course, they had to respond to real adversaries. Ong intimates that the less programmatically polemical orientation favored, in theory, by Ramism was also favored and indeed fostered by the emerging print culture. In any event, the less programmatically polemical orientation favored by Ramism also contributed to the historical emergence of the spirit of modern capitalism and of modern science and of modern democracy such as the American experiment in democracy.

Subsequently, Ong thematized this key cultural variable as polemic in spirit (Greek, "polemos" means war, struggle) in his book THE PRESENCE OF THE WORD: SOME PROLEGOMENA FOR CULTURAL AND RELIGIOUS HISTORY (Yale University Press, 1967), the expanded published version of Ong's 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University.

But later Ong thematized this key variable as agonistic in spirit (Greek, "agon" means contest, struggle) in his book FIGHTING FOR LIFE: CONTEST, SEXUALITY, AND CONSCIOUSNESS (Cornell University Press, 1981), the published version of Ong's 1979 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University. In this work Ong also discusses the biological base of what he terms agonistic behavior.

In short, the political freedom and the economic freedom that Romney celebrates emerged together historically in American culture after centuries of Western cultural conditioning of the agonistic spirit discussed by Ong. However, in many parts of the world today, the infrastructures of Western cultural conditioning as detailed in Ong's account of Western cultural history have not yet made strong inroads in the different local cultures involved.

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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; 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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