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Sci Tech    H4'ed 3/14/10

Who Was Walter Ong, and Why Is His Thought Important Today?

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) March 12, 2010 Rob Kall is familiar with Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003). But Rob is an old guy. I am even older born in 1944! It strikes me that I should write something introductory about Ong for the benefit of OpEdNews readers who are younger than Rob and who may not be familiar with Ong's thought about communication media.

Let's start with his full name: Walter Jackson Ong, Jr. The family name is English. For many centuries, it was spelled Onge. It is probably related to the English name Yonge as in the name of a famous street in Toronto. Ong's earliest ancestors came to this country on the same ship with Roger Williams. They came here from East Anglia, where Cambridge University is located. The name Jackson commemorates the family relation President Andrew Jackson.

Walter Jackson Ong, Sr., was a Protestant. But his wife was a Roman Catholic. As a result, Walter Jr. and his younger brother were raised as Roman Catholics. Walter Jr. grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where he attended Catholic schools and then the Jesuit high school and the Jesuit college in Kansas City. As an undergraduate, he majored in Latin. But he also had enough credits in both biology and philosophy for a major in each of them.

After he graduated from Rockhurst College in 1933 (six months before he turned 21), Ong worked for a couple of years. But then he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Florissant, Missouri, in the fall of 1935. The Jesuit novitiate is a two-year novitiate. The novitiate in Florissant was a farm at the time. But today Florissant is a distant suburb of the City of St. Louis.

Next, he was sent for further studies in the humanities to Saint Louis University (SLU) in St. Louis, Missouri. Next, he advanced to the study of philosophy at SLU. At that time the SLU Department of Philosophy was large, as it continued to be over the next several decades, when Ong himself returned to SLU with his Ph.D. in English from Harvard University to teach English at SLU from 1954 to 1984.

In the late 1930s, the philosophy courses at SLU for young Jesuits in training were taught in Latin the class lectures, the assigned readings, and the tests were all in Latin, as were all the theology courses that Ong later took in the 1940s as part of his Jesuit training at SLU, but at a temporary location in Kansas. That temporary location endured for several decades.

As Ong was pursuing his graduate studies in philosophy, he also pursued a Master's degree in English at SLU. This brought him in contact with the bright and loquacious young Canadian Marshall McLuhan, a recent convert to Roman Catholicism who taught English at SLU from 1937 to 1944. However, one academic year McLuhan took a leave of absence from SLU and returned to Cambridge University to continue his research on his doctoral dissertation. His doctoral dissertation was a study of Thomas Nashe in connection with the learning of his time the learning of his time involving the verbal arts known as grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (or logic). McLuhan completed his doctoral dissertation in 1943. In 2006 Gingko Press in California published McLuhan's unrevised dissertation as the book The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, edited by W. Terrence Gordon.

Because McLuhan was researching the learning of Nashe's time (roughly Shakespeare's time), McLuhan was alert to Perry Miller's then-new book The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Harvard University Press, 1939). The English immigrants in Massachusetts Bay Colony had immigrated there from East Anglia, where a number of them had studied at CambridgeUniversity when the work of the French logician and educational reformer Peter Ramus (1515-1572) was being lionized there, as it continued to be in John Milton's time there as well. Perry Miller reports that he had found only one self-described Aristotelian in seventeenth-century New England everybody else was a Ramist.

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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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