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Three Cheers for American Exceptionalism!

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) June 11, 2011: If you are interested in how and why the world works, then you should be interested in the thought of the American cultural historian and philosopher Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003) of Saint Louis University. Never heard of him, you say? I'm not surprised. With the exception of a few articles, the central body of Ong's work is remarkably irenic in spirit. Typically, he does not set up a real or imagined adversarial position against which he is developing his sweeping account of cultural history. How could the thought of such a studiously irenic writer compete in the marketplace of public intellectuals with famously polemical writers such as Noam Chomsky?

But apart from possibly admiring Ong for being insightful and learned, is his sweeping account of cultural history of any practical value? It depends, I suppose, on what you consider to be of practical value. One practical value that we can draw from Ong's thought is a well-founded sense of American exceptionalism, as distinct from a triumphalistic and bombastic sense of American exceptionalism. In ancient Athens, for example, Pericles expressed a triumphalistic and bombastic sense of Athenian exceptionalism is his famous "Funeral Oration" (as remembered by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War). We Americans would be well advised to avoid such triumphalism and bombast.

The well-founded sense of American exceptionalism that we can draw from Ong's thought can enable us Americans to get our bearings in the world today about who we are and where we come from. But stand forewarned: The sense of American exceptionalism that emerges from Ong's thought will not only enhance American self-esteem but also heighten the challenge that we Americans already have to make our experiment in representative democracy work as well as we can. Briefly, the United States is the culmination and epitome of Western cultural history. American political liberalism and economic liberalism are the twin models for the cultural development of all non-Western cultures in the world today, including China. In our political and economic institutions, we Americans are the light for the world. Figuratively speaking, the United States is the city on a hill that John Winthrop referred to long ago.

But if we Americans collectively are the political and economic model for all non-Western cultures to aspire to emulate, doesn't it follow that adult Americans should conduct themselves as though we are ourselves individually models of upright and just conduct? Taking a hint from the historical Jesus, shouldn't each of us Americans individually be striving to actuate the inbreaking of God's reign of justice in this world? To be sure, freedom is a necessary condition for justice. But there can be freedom without justice. For this reason, we Americans who have such enormous freedom should strive for justice.

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Today the Chinese are making significant strides toward American economic liberalism. However, it remains to be seen if they will move toward American political liberalism. Oddly enough, Ong's detailed account of Western cultural history can be understood as in effect providing a set of guidelines for China (and other non-Western countries) to follow in order to move toward modernity, assuming that China wants to move toward modernity. The deep cultural conditioning of the Chinese in Confucian culture is still strong in China today, just as the deep cultural conditioning of rhetorical culture was in the West for centuries before the emergence of the Gutenberg printing press gradually brought about its demise. But I am getting ahead of myself. It is time to back up and discuss Ong's work in greater detail.

Who was Walter Ong? Walter Jackson Ong, Jr., was the oldest child of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother. The middle name "Jackson" commemorates the family's relationship with President Andrew Jackson. The Ong family's ancestors came from East Anglia to Massachusetts Bay Colony on the same ship that brought Roger Williams here in 1631. The family name "Ong" is English; for centuries it was spelled "Onge"; it is probably related to the English name "Yonge."

East Anglia is where Cambridge University is located, and many of the men who came from East Anglia to Massachusetts Bay Colony had been educated at Cambridge University. In 1636, as is well known, the educated colonists in Massachusetts Bay Colony founded Harvard College. The early educators at Harvard College were self-described Ramists, followers of the French logician and educational reformer and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572). For centuries, Catholic educators in medieval universities had passed on in Latin the Aristotelian tradition of logic. Because Protestant educators wanted to differentiate themselves from Catholic educators, Protestant educators at Cambridge University and Harvard College and elsewhere in different countries in Europe championed Ramus's work (in Latin). For example, John Milton studied Ramus's work in logic in Latin when he was a student at Cambridge University, and later in his life he wrote a textbook in logic in Latin based on Ramus's work. Ong and Charles J. Ermatinger of Saint Louis University translated Milton's textbook as A Fuller Course in the Art of Logic Conformed to the Method of Peter Ramus in volume eight of Yale's Complete Prose Works of John Milton (1982, pages 206-407), and Ong supplied a lengthy historical introduction (pages 139-205).

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Ong's first major claim to scholarly fame was his massively researched Harvard University doctoral dissertation about Ramus's work. His dissertation was published, slightly revised, by Harvard University Press in two volumes in 1958: (1) Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason and (2) Ramus and Talon Inventory. In Ramus and Talon Inventory, Ong lists and briefly describes the more than 750 volumes (most in Latin) by Ramus and Talon and other Ramists and some of Ramus's critics that he (Ong) tracked down by working in more that 100 libraries in the British Isles and Continental Europe. (Ong received financial assistance from two Guggenheim fellowships to conduct his research; as a Jesuit priest, he was entitled to live in Jesuit residences when he traveled.)

Ramus and the Protestant educators who championed his work in logic over the Aristotelian tradition of logic were part of the larger educational movement that we today refer to as Renaissance humanism. In a similar way, the proliferating colleges founded by the early Jesuits throughout Europe were also part of the larger educational movement known today as Renaissance humanism. The large educational movement known today as Renaissance humanism supplanted and superceded the older educational movement known as scholasticism that had dominated the arts curriculum of medieval universities for three centuries or more. In Four Cultures of the West (2004), John W. O'Malley, S.J., discusses the medieval university and Renaissance humanism as two of the four cultures mentioned in the title of his book. As O'Malley's discussion of them indicates, both forms of education are still with us today in Western culture.

In any event, Walter Jr. and his younger brother attended Catholic schools in Kansas City, Missouri, and then attended the Jesuit high school and the Jesuit college in Kansas City. Walter Jr. graduate from Rockhurst College (now Rockhurst University) in 1933. After working in commercial positions for two years, Walter Jr. entered the two-year novitiate of the Roman Catholic religious order known informally as the Jesuits (known formally as the Society of Jesus; hence, the initials "S.J." after the name of Jesuits). As luck would have it, Ong advanced in his Jesuit training to study philosophy (in Latin) at Saint Louis University (SLU) when the young Canadian Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), fresh from studying English at Cambridge University under I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis, was teaching English at SLU. In addition to completing a licentiate degree in philosophy (roughly equivalent to a Master's degree), Ong completed a Master's degree in English, with McLuhan serving as the director of his Master's thesis on sprung rhythm in the poetry of the Victorian Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins. During the years when McLuhan was teaching at SLU (1938-1944), he was working on two big projects: (1) a very creative study of popular culture, which eventually culminated in the publication of his experimental book The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951) and (2) his Cambridge University dissertation about the history of the verbal arts (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic or logic), which was published posthumously, unrevised but with an editorial apparatus, as The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time (2006). McLuhan has called Ong's attention to the work of Ramus. As a result, Ong dedicated Ramus and Talon Inventory (1958) to "Herbert Marshall McLuhan who started all this." The publication of Ong's Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (1958) prompted McLuhan to borrow Ong's thesis and amplify it with material of his own choosing in his experimental book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962). Next, McLuhan his most conventional-looking book Understanding Media: Extensions of Man (1964). But it is filled with rather unconventional ways of thinking, to put it mildly. But taken together, McLuhan's two books in the early 1960s catapulted him to extraordinary fame (or infamy, depending on how you think of McLuhan). McLuhan received extraordinary media attention. He was a celebrity. However, in time, his extraordinary celebrity was followed by extraordinary criticism, to put it mildly.

When his former teacher and life-long friend Marshall McLuhan was receiving such extraordinary attention in the 1960s and the 1970s, Ong kept producing his growing body of irenic studies in cultural history: The Barbarian Within: And Other Fugitive Essays and Studies (1962); In the Human Grain: Further Explorations of Contemporary Culture (1967); The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (1967), the published version of Ong's 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University; Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture (1971); Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (1977); Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (1981), the published version of Ong's 1979 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University; Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), Ong's most widely known book; and Hopkins, the Self, and God (1986), the published version of Ong's 1981 Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto.

The books by Ong that I have mentioned thus far constitute the core works in his multivariate account of cultural history. But Ong's understanding of our American culture is best expressed in his two early short collections of essays addressed to his fellow American Catholics: Frontiers in American Catholicism: Essays on Ideology and Culture (1957), which is dedicated to the memory of his father and mother, and American Catholic Crossroads: Religious-Secular Encounters in the Modern World (1959), which is dedicated to his brother and his brother's family. In Frontiers in American Catholicism, Ong describes the United States as "the nation whose genius seems to be adaptability and change" (page 3). We Americans today may feel more deeply challenged than Americans in the 1950s did to adapt and change in response to the expanding economic globalization, but adaptability and change are part of our American heritage, as Ong says. He also refers to our "peculiar American personalism" and "the forward-looking habits endemic in the American state of mind" (pages 124, 125). In American Catholic Crossroads, Ong points out that "our loyalty in a democracy is, in some ways or other, actually a commitment to all of the millions of persons who make up our democratic society much more than it is loyalty to any "principles.'" He explains, "There is thus a sense in which democracy encourages love, for commitment [to other persons] is a form of love" (pages 43, 44). In his reflections on Isaac Hecker, Ong observes that "the [American] ideals of growth and progress are among the most powerful religious forces, if not the most powerful, characteristic of our age" (page 63).

Ong's own reflections on personalist thought can be found in two essays in The Barbarian Within (1962, pages 233-241, 242-259) and in Hopkins, the Self, and God (1986). Recently Gary Dorrien has enriched our understanding of American personalist thought in volume two of his three-volume study titled The Making of American Liberal Theology (2003, pages 286-355), and so has Rufus Burrow, Jr., in Personalism: A Critical Introduction (1999) and in God and Human Dignity: The Personalism, Theology, and Ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr. (2006).

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Ong's Sweeping Account of Western Cultural History


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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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