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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.

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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.

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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.

McLuhan alerted Ong about Miller's book. Miller had done his best to understand and explain Ramus' work. But toward the end of his book he called for somebody to undertake a far more thorough study of Ramus' work and its European context. In the late 1940s, after Ong had completed his theological studies and had been ordained a priest, he advanced with three graduate degrees in hand to HarvardUniversity to undertake doctoral studies in English. Perry Miller served as the director of Ong's ambitious doctoral dissertation about Ramus and Ramism.

With the financial assistance of two Guggenheim Fellowships, Ong lived abroad for about four years researching his dissertation. By virtue of being a Jesuit, he was entitled to request to live in Jesuit residences, which put him on touch with local Jesuits who knew the areas where they lived. He worked in more than 100 libraries in the British Isles and Continental Europe tracking down the more than 750 volumes he lists and briefly describes in Ramus and Talon Inventory (Harvard University Press, 1958), which he dedicates to Marshall McLuhan.

Its companion volume is Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (Harvard University Press, 1958). In 2004, the year after Ong's death, the University of Chicago Press reissued it in a paperback edition with a new foreword by Adrian Johns. In this book Ong works with the contrast of oral-aural and visual, a contrast with which he also works in many of the essays reprinted in his collection The Barbarian Within: And Other Fugitive Studies and Essays (Macmillan, 1962).

But those two big volumes about Ramus and Ramism put Ong on the intellectual map as a big-league thinker, because most Harvard professors had to acknowledge that they had not undertaken such a massively researched and intellectually ambitious study. In 1963, the French government dubbed Ong a knight, an honor rarely bestowed on someone who is not a French citizen.

I would characterize the next events in Ong's life as one blessing after another after another after another after another . . . . You get the idea.

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As we now proceed to review significant events in Ong's lifetime, please remember that in the years of Ong's lifetime the United States was engaged in the Cold War, and Americans lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the black civil rights movement, the American imperialistic war in Vietnam, the women's movement, the Supreme Court's decision to legalize abortion, the fall of the Berlin wall, the break up of the old Soviet Union, the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, and the American imperialistic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are still ongoing.

During the 1960s and the 1970s and into the 1980s, Ong was very active on the academic lecture circuit both in the United States and abroad. Moreover, during the late 1960s and the 1970s, McLuhan was arguably the most publicized English teacher in the English-speaking world. (He died in 1980.)

In 1960, Harvard University Press published Albert B. Lord's book about oral tradition involving non-literate performers, The Singer of Tales.

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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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