Cultivating Empathy in National Law Schools

By creating a more empathetic teaching, learning and living environment, law universities could become better places for students from marginalised backgrounds.

“Without consideration, without pity, without shame
they have built great and high walls around me.
And now I sit and feel despair. I think of nothing else:
this fate gnaws at my mind; for I had many things to do outside.
Ah, why didn’t I pay attention when they were building the walls.
Imperceptibly they shut me off from the outside world.”

∼ Walls, by Constantine P. Cavafy (1896)

A few days ago, 41 Dalit and Adivasi students at the National Law University (NLU), Delhi endorsed an e-mail complaint reporting institutionalised caste discrimination. Apathy from teachers, the administration and students have reportedly triggering multiple suicide attempts on campus.

Earlier this year, Kanishk Bharati, a Dalit student, hung himself from the ceiling of his hostel room in the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore. Kanishk was doing well academically in his first year. In the second year, however, his mental health condition began worsening. He was reportedly upset about failing one of his papers by just two marks. When he wrote to the administration requesting grace marks, his plea was turned down. Suffering from both depression and schizophrenia, on March 16, Kanishk died by suicide.

Given that there have been a large number of student suicides, understanding the effect of institutional apathy becomes crucial.

Regretting a culture of apathy

Kanishk’s body was discovered almost two days after his death, reflecting an institutional failure to protect him from isolation. His death highlights a crisis at the National Law Universities (NLUs): campus spaces are becoming increasingly taxing. Mandates such as the minimum qualifying marks or attendance requirements are often implemented while disregarding students’ circumstances.

These mandates disproportionately impact the lives of marginalised students, often resulting in their demoralisation. This condition is exacerbated by a gruellingly competitive environment, coupled with peer pressure to engage in the pursuit of employment at extravagantly paying law firms, forcing students to move out of the hostel to seek refuge.

The environment in elite institutions undermines social cohesiveness within campus spaces in an already exclusionary atmosphere, bereft of empathy among students towards peers outside their immediate social circle. This makes life on campus a struggle for Dalit students, who continue to face layers of exclusion in elite institutions: acceptance into the mainstream, and coping with the intrinsic design of pedagogy within classroom spaces lacking any attempt to democratise engagement remain exigent.

Also read: Legislating ‘National’ Out of National Law Universities in West Bengal

Take, for instance, the testimony of a Dalit alumnus from NLSIU, titled ‘Roll call of shame’. The student condemned their daily roll call for declaring SC/ST students in a separate category four times a day. The roll call was a rehearsal of an institutional notion of merit, so much so that this bias permeated into evaluation – there was no system of “blind marking” until 2010. These institutional biases reflect a culture of apathy in academic spaces meant only to further elite interests, leaving marginalised students behind.

Cahn’s theory of empathy

Professor Amita Dhanda, in a recent lecture, proposed ameliorating social exclusion by drawing from Edmond Cahn’s theory of empathy as a step towards reforming legal education. Cahn’s theory suggests that human beings possess a natural capacity to feel injustice. He suggests that every human has the capacity to regard an attack against another as an attack on ourselves, due to a predisposed sense of empathy.

Empathy imagining one person in the shoes of another, who, in Cahn’s view, is the source of determining injustice. This helps us feel as if we ourselves were treated unjustly. Thus we are able to understand dismissed arguments, lost causes and exclusion better.

Cahn suggests that instead of simply understanding what justice constitutes, we need to feel injustice; while the former is intrinsically associated with what the natural law tradition considered ideal, a sense of injustice controversially encompasses the warmth of human emotion. Cahn characterises his theory as both rational and emotional. Admitting that over-emphasis on emotion could mean treading a dangerous path, Cahn believed in blending empathy with reason, i.e. that empathy must be guided by calculated considerations.

It becomes important to caution here: Cahn’s theory of empathy does not seek to dictate a particular sense of morality. In fact, Cahn’s emphasis on injustice holds significance because it renders common ground for ameliorating injustice in the absence of a consensus on normative values. He admits that reasonable persons may differ on the correct course of action to manifest empathy.

Cultivating empathy does not imply an attempt to influence the choices someone makes. Instead, it involves influencing the process by which we make those choices, i.e., the temporary suspension of evaluation and judgement and simply getting to know another person’s experience.

Building on Dhanda’s thought, I propose that NLUs should cultivate a sense of empathy towards those subjected to injustice by teaching students, faculty and the administration. This would involve blending reason with empathy, which in turn could help democratise law schools.

Cultivating empathy in NLUs

Why should NLUs cultivate empathy? They have received fair criticism for failing to harness any significant interest among students to contribute towards improving the quality of access to social justice. This is because most students eventually succumb to pursuing a career at law firms or are simply disinterested in social justice. This is antithetical to the intended purpose for which they were created. The problem of apathy towards injustice is accentuated by the elite composition these NLUs, evident from a study conducted by students of NLSIU.

Most law professors attend to pure reason by teaching students how to think like lawyers, seldom teaching us how to feel. Professors are not encouraged to teach students values such as conscientiousness, self-reflection and critical thinking. As a result, contemporary teachers are not motivated to cultivate empathy towards subjects of oppression, crucial for social cohesion.

For instance, understanding the black letter meaning of land acquisition law is distinct from witnessing the lived experiences of slum-dwellers facing regular displacement in the name of public purpose. The latter inherently involves putting oneself in the position of the subject of the law, rather than the one who wields the power to govern. While a few courses across law schools endeavour to make students exercise empathy, a vast majority of the courses remain pedagogically non-interdisciplinary.

Also read: Uncloaking the Rule of Opacity in National Law Universities

How could students develop a sense of injustice? Injustice felt by peers could be experienced by diversifying relationships through looking beyond our usual gaze; beyond the closed social circles we interact with daily, further to groups we do not interact with or communities we do not ordinarily engage with due to underlying social distinctions.

This could range from sparking a conversation with students who may be finding it difficult to cope with a difficult course and feel increasingly out of place and understand them better, to visiting far off jhuggi-dwellers being subjected to eviction without dignified relocation and helping them out. Seniors could also actively mentor juniors falling behind before they are completely left out.

Empathy in the administration could be cultivated by realising the need for greater attention to marginalised students and their concerns. Extraordinary circumstances of students could be dealt with a little more empathetically. The administration could institutionalise extra lectures for students who find it difficult to cope with the pace of the routine lectures, if a sizeable number of students seem interested. Since communication is a means of invoking empathy, allowing students to communicate in vernacular languages in additional lectures could perhaps help achieve better understanding and learning.

Professors could also play a role in institutionally cultivating this sense of empathy: they could do so by planning their courses in a manner which involves studying the lived experiences of subjects of a law. Making academic courses increasingly interdisciplinary could help achieve this objective. Empathy in teaching could be realised through a three-stage method suggested by Eleni Damianidou and Helen Phtiaka in Critical Pedagogy of Empathy. The three stages include methodical listening, student-teacher interaction and exchange of roles to harness empathy.

The first step involves understanding the perspectives of different students and valuing their lived experiences. Once students become comfortable and channels of communication open up, and teachers step into the shoes of students, resources relevant to the experiences of students are made available at the second stage, encouraging students to raise concerns they were traditionally silent about. Eventually, students disseminate self-attained knowledge to a broader community to create a more informed, democratic, critical and empathetic citizenry. Integrating activities which help in seeing through others’ lenses within the existing academic curriculum is also helpful.

These steps could make university spaces more just.

It is also important to clarify that Cahn believed that a sense of injustice should culminate in action; i.e., correction of a wrong. Once the first step – feeling injustice – is achieved, the next step is to muster the courage to respond to injustice.  Cahn’s sense of empathy resonates with what Amartya Sen describes as commitment, distinct from mere sympathy.

While sympathy is concerned with the influence of someone else’s welfare on one’s own well being, commitment implies the ability to make sacrifices and remain content with a relatively lower state of well-being when an alternatively higher level exists. Feeling injustice, however, paves the path to commitment.

Siddharth Sonkar is a final year student of National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Kolkata.