Stanford University

This week I’m at Stanford University in Palo Alto, with my two oldest children, for a week-long violin workshop organized by the Suzuki Association of Northern California. We are here with children from all over the state and beyond – one coming from as far away as Hawaii – who have a passion for classical violin and the famous pedagogical method of Dr. Suzuki. The last couple of days have been eye-opening for my kids. We eat in the cafeteria with other groups of students here for various events. The classes are small but obviously much larger than my kids are used to. And they are on their own – no parents around all day, they must look to their teachers for direction and make their own way from classroom to classroom.  They are surrounded by children who are very different in behavior, dress, and attitude. Their classmates seem to be mostly public school children and come with all that implies, but these are also the “cream of the crop” and are mostly harmless. True, we switched dining rooms at breakfast this morning to avoid listening to the constant profanity coming from a table nearby – my kids had never heard the “f-bomb” until now – and last night at dinner I nearly lost my cool with three punks who stole the seats of three girls who were away from their table. These boys, before occupying the girls’ seats, went so far as to remove their trays full of food and to place them on the next table over, so when the girls returned they were laughed at and had a tough time finding other seats in the crowded dining hall. Otherwise the Suzuki students seem to be a decent, happy, and talented bunch of ordinary kids. Jonathan and Amy are learning a lot and are already making friends.

My daughter Amy, who is herself half-Vietnamese, wonders  why so many of her fellow musicians are Asian. Good question! The same proportions seem to hold true among Stanford University students in general. It is an interesting sociological question, to be sure, but not something to be obsessed over, and thankfully there are no signs of that happening. 

Stanford University is one of California’s premier architectural jewels. Last night after dinner we headed over to the quad, the oldest part of the campus and by far the most impressive. The memorial church is the most prominent building, the center of gravity holding everything else together. A vast, colorful  mosaic of the Sermon on the Mount rises from the arches to a large cross sitting high atop the church. Peeking inside, the church and sanctuary have a very Catholic look. There even appears to be a high altar against the sancturary wall. Wandering about the medieval-like courtyard Jonathan was absolutely beside himself with delight. I’m not a scholar or even a student of architecture, but here everything was “in its place” –  the orderliness, symmetry, proportionality, and grandeur of the place delivering a little bit of heaven on earth.


The founders of Stanford were protestants, and very unorthodox protestants at that, influenced by east coast Transcendentalism and other strange theologies. But they had an immense respect for California’s Catholic heritage and did not shy away from overtly Catholic allusions. The images of the mosaic on the memorial church are clearly influenced by Catholic art. Streets are named for Junipero Serra, El Camino Real, and Saint Teresa. However, somewhere along the line, it seems the educators become embarrassed by this, and the newer parts of the campus with its modernist buildings and landscaping have avoided any taint of the old religion. For example, we are staying in a dorm called the Casa Italiana. The theme of the dorm is all things Italian. Italian art adorns the walls, etc. And yet – if you can imagine this – there is not a single hint of Catholicism in the entire building. A very large photograph of Michelagelo’s nude sculpture of David met with their approval, and this full-frontal greeting meets everyone coming through the front door at eye level. There is another photo of an Italian city skyline (I don’t know which city), but it must be the only skyline in all of Italy without a visible church.  One has to work hard to imagine an Italy without steeples, or Italian art without the Madonna, but apparently it can be done if one is sufficiently motivated!

Anyway, I’m very happy to be here in what feels like the heart of old California. Today I plan to hear a violin recital, explore a few more corners of the campus, and spend some quality time in the university bookstore.  There will be a two-hour concert on Thursday night with all the Suzuki students, and afterwards we will be going to dinner with my cousin, a brilliant and engaging lady who spent an illustrious career as an archivist with Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and her husband, who is Swedish but does have many good qualities. Expect light blogging this week.


5 thoughts on “Stanford University

  1. ” we are staying in a dorm called the Casa Italiana. The theme of the dorm is all things Italian. Italian art adorns the walls, etc. And yet – if you can imagine this – there is not a single hint of Catholicism in the entire building. “

    Sadly this vision would be met with much approving enthusiasm from a number of modern secular Italians.


  2. If you are in Palo Alto on Friday night, and are interested in the St. Ann Choir, there will be a special [Novus Ordo] liturgy with Gregorian chant and polyphony for the Feast of the Assumption at 8:00 PM. More details here.


  3. Sinner: I don’t doubt that at all. The modern project of attempting to erase Catholicism from our collective memories continues apace, even in the heart of the Church.

    T. Chan: Thanks for the notice. Unfortunately, we will be gone by then, but if you are in Palo Alto on Wednesday or Thursday please give me a call. My internet connection is very unpredictable here, but my cell phone is 530-514-4426. I’d welcome a chance to meet you.


  4. Mr. Culbreath–I am supposed to be doing a lot of wriging, but if I can make some time on Thursday to come out, so if I am able to do so I will attempt to reach you by phone tomorrow evening. Thank you for the offer!


  5. Two corrections:

    1. The mosaic on the memorial church depicts a scene just prior to Christ’s Ascension, not the Sermon on the Mount as I had thought at first.

    2. There is no high altar in the church. A rectangular golden mosaic decorates the wall exactly where a high altar should be.

    The church is so stunningly beautiful it is difficult to fight the urge to genuflect. A stained glass image of the crucifixion towers over the sanctuary. The organ in the choir loft is enormous. That said, there are heretical and indifferentist statements carved into the stone walls – quotes from some 19th century personage, apparently. The sermon for the ecumenical service this week was preached by a female Jewish rabbi.


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