Walter Ong studied how human life and consciousness changed substantially with the move from oral to written cultures. He worked at a crossroads of communication theory, history and literature. Ong also wrote a lot about the history of education (including material on the early moves from classical to modern classroom methods). He argues that we need to help students learn to speak and write by imitating and expanding upon delightful and witty collections of great examples. In this passage, he critiques the modern method of learning to write by analysis (which was first used in classrooms to the exclusion of almost all else by Peter Ramus, 1515 to 1572):
With analysis as a device for finding ‘matter’ for discourse, [students] shift from a word-wisdom to a kind of classroom-wisdom. Ramist analysis forces the pupil to process all his mental possessions through some art or curriculum subject before he puts them to use. If an apothegm or a proverb or an aphorism should by any chance come to mind, before one uses it one had best write it down and analyze it grammatically, rhetorically, logically, mathematically, or ‘physically.’ What it ‘contains’ is what comes out of the analysis, not what it actually says before it is analyzed. …To this mind the sense that utterances can somehow touch mysterious depths which analysis can never quite fathom (without itself opening still greater depths) is of course lost. All statement is flat, plain, and if it is not this, it is deficient as statement. …Ramism implies that it is the curriculum subjects which hold the world together. Nothing is accessible for ‘use,’ that is, for active intussusception [a drawing in of something from without: the assimilation of new material and its dispersal among preexistent matter] by the human being, until it has first been put through the curriculum. The schoolroom is by implication the doorway to reality, and indeed the only doorway. …The implication is there, for every educator to read and take comfort from, that in the last analysis the curriculum is all. Ramus is indeed a pedagogue’s pedagogue.“Ramist Classroom Procedure and the Nature of Reality” by Walter J. Ong. Studies in English Literature. Winter, 1961. pp. 31-47.
I’m so grateful for a friend who recently introduced me to the work of Walter Ong. I’m learning, inspired and encouraged. There are many solid and helpful implications for classical Christian educators. Ong did a lot of criticizing of influential French humanist and educational reformer Peter Ramus (1515 to 1572). Ong also loved Gerard Manley Hopkins (writing Hopkins, the Self, and God).
Here are a few more quotes from more major works as examples of his thought:
Jack Goody (1977) has convincingly shown how shifts hitherto labeled as shifts from magic to science, or from the so-called ‘prelogical’ to the more and more ‘rational’ state of consciousness, or from Lévi-Strauss’s ‘savage’ mind to domesticated thought, can be more economically and cogently explained as shifts from orality to various stages of literacy. I had earlier suggested (1967b, p. 189) that many of the contrasts often made between ‘western’ and other views seem reducible to contrasts between deeply interiorized literacy and more or less residually oral states of consciousness.Walter J. Ong. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.
Learning to read and write disables the oral poet, Lord found: it introduces into his mind the concept of a text as controlling the narrative and thereby interferes with the oral composing processes, which have nothing to do with texts but are ‘the remembrance of songs sung.Walter J. Ong. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.
Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer. Vision dissects, as Merleau-Ponty has observed (1961). Vision comes to a human being from one direction at a time: to look at a room or a landscape, I must move my eyes around from one part to another. When I hear, however, I gather sound simultaneously from every directions at once; I am at the center of my auditory world, which envelopes me, establishing me at a kind of core of sensation and existence… You can immerse yourself in hearing, in sound. There is no way to immerse yourself similarly in sight.
By contrast with vision, the dissecting sense, sound is thus a unifying sense. A typical visual ideal is clarity and distinctness, a taking apart. The auditory ideal, by contrast, is harmony, a putting together.
Interiority and harmony are characteristics of human consciousness. The consciousness of each human person is totally interiorized, known to the person from the inside and inaccessible to any other person directly from the inside. Everyone who says ‘I’ means something different by it from what every other person means. What is ‘I’ to me is only ‘you’ to you…
In a primary oral culture, where the word has its existence only in sound… the phenomenology of sound enters deeply into human beings’ feel for existence, as processed by the spoken word. For the way in which the word is experienced is always momentous in psychic life.Walter J. Ong. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.
One of the abiding problems of explanation is that it splits issues analytically in order to clarify them, and in the process often impoverishes or denatures the issues, depriving them of some of their full and essential depth.Walter Ong. Language as Hermeneutic: A Primer on the Word and Digitization.
A name is often referred to in slang as a ‘handle,’ a hold on something or someone.Walter Ong. Hopkins, the Self, and God.
The ancient Greek term mythos, which yields our English ‘myth,’ at its root means anything delivered by word of mouth and thus from the start was radically acoustic.Walter Ong. Language as Hermeneutic: A Primer on the Word and Digitization.
The term ‘catholic’ (katholikos, a Greek word adopted by the Latin Church) does not mean universal (that is, ‘inclusive,’ ‘encompassing,’ and hence by implication to some degree bounding) but rather, in its Greek etymology, kata + holos, through-the-whole, outgoing, expansive.Walter Ong. Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness an d Culture.
Openness does not mean lack of organization, lack of principle, or lack of all resistance. For the human being, at least, it means quite the contrary: the strengthening of organization, principles, and resistance where needed, so that interaction with the outside can be strong and real. Indeed, paradoxically again, openness means strengthening closure itself.Walter Ong. Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness an d Culture.
Real time has no divisions at all, but is uninterruptedly continuous: at midnight yesterday did not click over into today. No one can ﬁnd the exact point of midnight, and if it is not exact, how can it be midnight? And we have no experience of today as being next to yesterday, as it is represented on a calendar. Reduced to space, time seems more under control—but only seems to be, for real, indivisible time carries us to real death. (This is not to deny that spatial reductionism is immeasurably useful and technologically necessary, but only to say that its accomplishments are intellectually limited, and can be deceiving.)Walter Ong. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.