In this presentation, Ong's address to the MLA after serving as its president, Ong stresses the importance of a unifying professionalism for those in the fields of modern languages and literatures at a time when all of the humanities are caught in an identity crisis that stems in part from their vital inclusiveness.  Although the issues that are central to the humanities are also central to human existence, they can seem "related to everything generally and nothing at all specifically," Ong points out.

Establishing and retaining a professional identity in the humanities even as specialized "professions" are multiplying in other fields is an internal challenge and one exacerbated by outside developments, he states.  Although vigorous and rewarding, the "hybridization" of language and literary studies with other disciplines presents a challenge to self-definition that has opened a "threatening chasm between formalism and activism."  Other complications have included the unionization of faculties and pressures to make course offerings relevant as proliferating university departments compete for a finite number of students.

Because professionalism can get lost in such an atmosphere, Ong urges to keep in mind that languages and literature bring "human beings into relationship with what is most human" more effectively than any other discipline.  As human consciousness of the natural world expands, he believes, the crucial importance of language only intensifies.

In this wide-ranging article, Ong also upholds the teaching of writing as being equal to the teaching of literature; presents a general definition of professionalism, which for languages and literature arrived with academic authentication; sketches the rise of English and other Western vernaculars upon the foundation of "Learned Latin," which became totally controlled by writing; espouses the importance of studying the past for knowledge of the present; and declares that the "technology of culture" may be overrated as a threat to high standards.  He reminds us that literature is a technological creation and machines are extensions and creations of ourselves.

Terry Morris
University of Dayton

Return to Listings