August 25, 2003
Walter J. Ong, 90, Jesuit, Teacher and Scholar of Language, Dies
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 edition).
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 primitivist approach.
He 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."
In 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.
Father 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.
He 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 graffiti.
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.
He 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.
He 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.