Occidental College President Jonathan Veitch defied those who dismiss colleges as ivory towers in a speech on the protocols, demands, and pleasures of reading at the College's annual Convocation ceremony in Thorne Hall, the official opening of Occidental's 123rd academic year.
"The dichotomy between life and reading is an artificial one encouraged by people who are afraid of ideas, or who simply don't understand them, who want simple solutions to complex problems," Veitch told faculty and members of the Class of 2013, who greeted Occidental's new president with a standing ovation. "Reflection and action are inseparable ... Just as we would not think of venturing into a new terrain without a map, it is equally unthinkable to venture into the world without books at our disposal."
Reading "is no small thing in a culture that has little time for the qualities of a life reading cultivates: deliberation, an appreciation for complexity, a tolerance for ambiguity, a keen sense of humility before that which one does not know," Veitch said. "We live in a culture in which we get everything in quick sound bites or rapid cinematic cuts, all readily digestible ... Whatever institutions of higher learning are, they stand in profound opposition to all that."
Books are filled with a mixture of truth and falsehood that is difficult to disentangle, he said. Be wary of those claiming to be guidebooks to the present. "There are only books and more books, each with an argument or a point of view that must be weighed against a competing set of claims about the world. There is no release from this maelstrom of ideas. Learning how to negotiate it is the essence of a liberal arts education."
In a recent conversation, Dean Eric Frank observed that it was no accident that the books which matter most to us are the books we read in college, Veitch said. "This is the moment when we are most open to the world, when we are searching for answers to the biggest questions. I think he's right. And I envy the engagement you will soon have with the books and the big questions that await you."