Stanley Fish Praises the NAS’s Sustainability Report


The eminent literary critic and legal scholar Stanley Fish has read and commented on the National Association of Scholars’ study, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New FundamentalismThis is a matter of some moment for NAS. Twenty-five years ago when NAS was a fledgling organization, Fish criticized us harshly, and his characterizations remain in circulation to this day.  

Fish has always been a man of surprises, but his positive words about our new study will be especially surprising to many in the academy. Fish praised “the report's comprehensiveness, clarity and tone,” while taking care to say that he stands with the majority view on “climate change.”

The NAS takes no position on climate change. The NAS study does, however, call for a more open debate on campus that includes skeptics of the catastrophic anthropogenic global warming hypothesis. 

Fish’s statement in full: 

I have now read the NAS report on climate change and the sustainability movement on campus and my response to it is somewhat complicated. First, let me congratulate you on the report's comprehensiveness, clarity and tone. You never descend to the hectoring and bullying that characterize debate on these issues. You lay out the case in great detail and you anticipate and respond to the objections you imagine issuing from some of those whose positions you oppose.

Moreover your treatment of those "on the other side" is always respectful even when you report arguments and actions you find distressing.

Now for the other shoe. I remain persuaded by those who argue both for climate change and for the human contribution to it. I know that you challenge the "97% of scientists" claim and I know too that often in the past minority positions in science have turned out to be correct in the long run.

But I stand with Judith Jarvis Thompson when she insists (along with Thomas Kuhn) that in the short run we have to go with the preponderance of disciplinary wisdom and so I cannot agree that the issues are not settled. I think they are but I also think that they could possibly be unsettled in the future; that possibility, merely theoretical, is not one, however, that should weigh on academic/scientific judgment.

On the other matter--the adoption by some colleges and universities of a sustainability agenda as an academic orthodoxy from which one is not allowed to deviate—I am in agreement with you, as you might have expected me to be. Here my position is exactly that of President Faust of Harvard: the business of the academy is the advancement of knowledge not the advancement of social or environmental justice. I wish I had seen your report before completing Versions of Academic Freedom.

We are grateful for Professor Fish’s generous assessment of the report. No doubt we will continue to disagree about many things, but in an era marked more and more by rancorous polarization on campus and unwillingness to see any merit in views that deviate from campus orthodoxy, Fish’s “somewhat complicated” response to our report is exemplary. And we are grateful that he has been willing to let us put it on the record.

Image: UConn Today

  • Share