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– “Occam’s razor,” often referred to as the principle of parsimony. Fr. Michael taught us that ideas matter in history. In the radical challenges to universities in the 1960s, he saw the rise of a neo-nominalism driving the fragmentation of culture and higher education, pushing “marketplace colleges” and promoting the fetish of over-specialization. Out of the crisis, he predicted Saint John’s would shape a new paradigm, a “Christian humanist tradition.” His critics would say that he applied “Occam’s razor” to the budget and finances of Saint John’s. If SJU was to thrive in the second century of its history, it needed both an idea and a modernized fiscal system. The modernization of its finances had to replace a long tradition of budgeting by custom. In the fall 1965, I was one of a crowd of first-year students who enrolled in the History of Western Civilization team taught by the history faculty in the old Auditorium, today’s Humphrey Auditorium. A mid-semester essay exam demanded a reckoning. How many assignments had gone unread?

Br. Dietrich at a Saint John’s Bible dedication at John Carroll University. Fr. Michael’s family’s story, however, revealed a life that was far from privilege. His father was from Novaco, a remote village in Croatia. He had only a grade-school education. His mother was a German refugee with a high school education. Reading through the family records, you suspect Fr. Michael’s parents had stories to tell about both the human tragedy of Europe’s wars and the travails of making it as immigrants to Chicago.

In the next class after the exam, Fr. Michael entered the Auditorium a bit later than usual and carried armfuls of blue books. He reached the lectern, placed the blue books on a table and looked out on the class of a few hundred plus students. A moment of silence. Then, he asked, “Is there a Nick Hayes in the class?” What had I done? Let me skip the details of what he said next. The conversation marks the moment when I became an historian.

Br. Dietrich’s focus on peace

With a doctorate in medieval history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Fr. Michael could convince you that the politics of his favorite era – the 13th and 14th centuries – were today’s breaking news.

At Minneapolis’ De La Salle High School in the 1960s, one student objected to the assignment – Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars. The Vietnam War and its opposition were raging and climbing toward peaks of acrimony at Chicago and Kent State.

His teaching years came in the 1960s, a time of crisis and change in American politics, society and culture.

The student was “Tommy” Reinhart.

When he lectured on “nominalism and the crisis of medieval Christianity,” you inferred that the roots of America’s crisis in the 1960s lay in the 14th century rise of the philosophy of William of Ockham and his philosophical weapon

Our Latin teacher, George Stasik – who looked like a blend of Ichabod Crane and Mr. Chips – gingerly asked “Tommy” why he objected to reading Caesar’s history.

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Profile for CSB & SJU

Saint John's Magazine Winter/Spring 2019  

Saint John's Magazine is published in the fall and winter for alumni, parents, friends and the Saint John's University campus community.

Saint John's Magazine Winter/Spring 2019  

Saint John's Magazine is published in the fall and winter for alumni, parents, friends and the Saint John's University campus community.

Profile for csbsju
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