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Walter J. Ong's Reflections on Being an American (Review)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) December 19, 2011: Philip Gleason in history at the University of Notre Dame published the book CONTENDING WITH MODERNITY: [AMERICAN] CATHOLIC HIGHER EDUCATION IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (Oxford University Press, 1995). As the main title of his book indicates, American Catholics in the twentieth century did see themselves as contending with modernity. However, I would allow that the American Catholic spirit of contending with modernity was quixotic.


In any event, the American Catholic spirit of contending with modernity can be understood as an example of the spirit of adversativeness, the spirit of being up against something, that Walter J. Ong, S.J., describes as agonistic (i.e., contesting) behavior 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.


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But Ong's own agonistic spirit was manifested in the 1950s when he tried single-handedly to turn the American Catholic spirit of contending with modernity toward a deeply different orientation toward modernity. Perhaps Ong's effort was quixotic. In any event, he did not succeed.


Nevertheless, Ong did articulate a positive alternative orientation toward modernity, a positive alternative approach that I would characterize as a kind of sacramental approach toward modernity, or at least toward technology and science in modern life. He sets forth this alternative orientation in his essay "The Faith, the Intellectual, and the Perimeters" in his first book, the short collection of six essays titled FRONTIERS IN AMERICAN CATHOLICISM (Macmillan, 1957, pages 104-125).

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If we were to prescind from the context of Ong addressing his fellow American Catholics in the passages quoted below, we might want to consider if any of Ong's reflections and suggestions in the below-quoted passages may be of interest to any Americans today regardless of their religious-faith tradition or their lack of a religious-faith tradition. For example, should more Americans than Sacvan Bercovitch, a secular Jew and Canadian immigrant to the United States, dare to speculate as to the meaning of the American myth in relation to his or her interior life and the life of the human and American spirit, as Ong urges his fellows American Catholics to undertake to do? Should Americans today cultivate an "appreciation of America in its historical setting" because "one's intellectual maturity is tied up with one's insight into and acceptance of one's own history in relation to the whole of history"? Or is Ong wrong in claiming that one's own history is tied up with the whole of history?  


Here are some quotes from Ong's essay:


From pages 120-121: "American Catholic thought need not necessarily concern itself specifically with dinosaurs or pterodactyls, but it seems unlikely that it can mature until it succeeds in dealing with America itself and America's particular place along the irreversible trajectory which history is describing. This is not a call to chauvinism or for a specialization in "Americanology' based on the belief that this country is called by God to lead the rest of a benighted world to salvation. In fact, one of the difficulties facing the Catholic sensibility in the United States is precisely the tendency of many Catholics to let their understanding of the United States be defined by something like jingoism. The need for a Catholic appreciation of America in its historical setting arises not from the demands of patriotism but from the fact that one's intellectual maturity today is tied up with one's insight into and acceptance of one's own history in relation to the whole of history."

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COMMENT: Perry Miller's book THE NEW ENGLAND MIND: THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY (Harvard University Press, 1939) is a classic work in American studies. Ong's book RAMUS, METHOD, AND THE DECAY OF DIALOGUE: FROM THE ART OF DISCOURSE TO THE ART OF REASON (Harvard University Press, 1958) is a formidable study in the back-story, as it were, of the French logician and educational reformer and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572), whose work Perry Miller discusses in his 1939 book.


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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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