Mcluhan's Two Messengers Maurice Mcnamee and Walter Ong: World- Class Interpreters of His Ideas

Article excerpt

Thirty years ago, Marshall McLuhan told the world that "The medium is the message" and cemented his position as information prophet. Thirty years before that, McLuhan arrived here for a seven-year teaching gig at St. Louis University. Noted scholars Maurice McNamee and Walter Ong - students and peers of the late media guru - reminisce about their years with the man they called "Mac."

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BY THE AGE of 26, Maurice McNamee had obtained a graduate degree in English from St. Louis University, had learned to speak several languages - including a strong proficiency in Latin - and was now steadily on his way toward a doctorate. Amazingly, the young Jesuit accomplished all of this without knowing how to read. Not that he didn't know how to read - to recognize characters, sentences and subject/verb agreement. That he certainly knew how to do. It's just that McNamee didn't know how to read, to dig into a text for dissection and interpretation. Until he encountered Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan arrived at St. Louis University in 1937, a young English instructor from Cambridge still working on his dissertation. Teaching the discipline of the New Criticism, (an approach that viewed words as ambiguous and which sought to study text in light of a given context), he had an immediate impact on his students and their work. It wasn't until much later that McLuhan's influence would spread across the country and around the globe. After turning his attention fully toward media studies in the 1960s, McLuhan and his catchy insights - he coined such phrases as "sensory impact" and "global village" - walked a blurred line that barely separated pop culture and high intellectualism. On "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In," resident ditzy blonde Goldie Hawn giggled and asked the poetic question, "Marshall McLuhan, what are you doin'?" It was a long way from midtown St. Louis and the sheltered erudition of Jesuit life. The New Criticism For two Jesuits with a combined age of 172, the Rev. Maurice McNamee and the Rev. Walter Ong look pretty darn good, if not downright fabulous. Sitting in the lobby of their residence at Jesuit Hall on the campus of St. Louis Univeristy, the two share space with oil portraits of various saints, martyrs and popes - fellows much older and certainly more stoic than this duo. McNamee, 88, and Ong, 84, are quick with a smile and a laugh. Their minds are quick as well, giving hope to all those aging boomers who fear the onset of the golden years. Then again, these aren't your average everyday thinkers. McNamee is a renowned art historian and Renaissance scholar, a former head of the SLU English and art departments. Many will know him as the man who almost single-handedly helped to restore the historic Cupples House. Ong, who like his cohort now is a professor emeritus, just may be one of the most important critical theorists of his time, a Renaissance man that walks among us. His list of accomplishments, from his influential texts to his numerous academic awards, is mind boggling: Seminal works in the study of orality, literacy, contemporary culture and human behavior; former president of the Modern Language Association of America; a member of the National Council on the Humanities (1968-74); a stint on President Lyndon B. Johnson's White House Task Force on Education; a distinguished guest lecturer at the most revered academic institutions around the world. Hard to imagine that McNamee and Ong, the type of scholars who can intimidate with their knowledge if they so desire, were once fresh-faced students. Such was their status when they came into contact with McLuhan. "He had come in hot with the New Criticism, which was very much in the air," McNamee said as he comfortably settled into an overstuffed chair. "I had all my course work for the doctorate done, but I thought `Well, I'll just audit his course and see what this is all about.' " McNamee ended up taking all of McLuhan's classes. …