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
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
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
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
"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. …