J. Ong, 90, Jesuit, Teacher and Scholar of Language, Dies
August 25, 2003
By WOLFGANG SAXON
The Rev. Walter Jackson Ong, a Jesuit scholar of language and
its evolution as a means of communication, died on Aug. 12 in
St. Louis. He was 90.
Father Ong, who taught and wrote at St. Louis University, a Jesuit
institution, was the author most notably of "Orality and
Literacy." First published in 1982, it was most recently
reissued as "Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of
the Word 2000" (Routledge, second
A psychologist and onetime student of Marshall McLuhan, he focused,
as McLuhan did, on the history of the word. But where McLuhan
studied the historical changes from the written to the printed
word and from there to the present-day electronic "global
village," Father Ong took what has been described as a more
studied the appearance of speech in the development of mankind,
or orality as a means of communication. And he analyzed the emergence
of a secondary orality in the form of computer languages, which,
he wrote, "do not grow out of the unconscious but directly
out of consciousness."
that modern culture of secondary orality, he held, people do not
learn language naturally as part of growing up. Instead, he argued,
they absorb it from television, compact discs and computer programs.
Ong associated the spoken word in oral cultures with action, strength
and unity. By contrast, the written word in literate cultures
denoted, in his view, something internalized, isolating and apt
to keep a distance between the reader and the read.
studied communication in its various forms, from oral traditions
to print culture, from manuscripts to cyberspace.
Father Ong wove his theological, psychological and philosophical
insights to show the contrasts he saw between morality and literacy.
He was considered an outstanding postmodern theorist, whose ideas
spawned college courses and were used to analyze anything from
the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s soaring oratory to subway
Walter Ong was born in Kansas City, Mo., and graduated from Rockhurst
College there in 1933 with a major in Latin. He entered the Society
of Jesus in 1935, was ordained in 1946 and performed his priestly
duties throughout his academic career.
He received a master's in English in 1940 at St. Louis University,
where Marshall McLuhan supervised his thesis. He also received
advanced degrees in philosophy and sacred theology at St. Louis
University and, in 1955, a Ph.D. in English at Harvard.
then taught at St. Louis University for 36 years. He was Haren
professor of English and a humanities professor in psychiatry
at the medical school until his appointment in the 1980's as university
professor of Humanities.
served on President Lyndon B. Johnson's Task Force on Education
in 1967, and was a member of the National Council on the Humanities
and president of the Modern Language Association of America.