Decolonizing Mathematics at Cambridge in 1914: A Theoretical Analysis

Molly Hansen Carlisle
8 min readApr 15, 2021


The 2015 film, The Man Who Knew Infinity recounts the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a prolific mathematician from Madras, India. The following video gives a brief overview of Ramanujan’s incredible research:

Ramanujan was recruited by Professor Hardy to go to the University of Cambridge. While his contributions to the mathematical field were vast, Ramanujan faced discrimination, alienation, and oppression at Cambridge. I assert that Ramanujan’s subjection to these challenges decreased his wellbeing, stifled his creativity, and ultimately contributed to his early death, in turn robbing the field of mathematics from further advancements. This medium theorizes how a decolonizing pedagogy could have benefitted Ramanujan and the field of mathematics. Lastly, this medium assesses the remaining limitations of applying a decolonizing perspective to this context and discipline.

Decolonizing pedagogies serve to deliberately undo and counteract deep-seated monocultural, neoliberal, and colonial ways of life, while also validating and embracing indigenous epistemologies, practices, and ideologies (Fellner, 2018).

To emphasize how pervasive the stretch of colonization is, the map below provides a visual representation of Europe’s colonization and control throughout the world.

During the context and time period in which Ramanujan lived, a decolonizing paradigm would likely not be employed or appropriate. This is because Britain was currently ruling India and because Ramanujan was a marginalized, undervalued outsider in the context of the dominant culture. Colonial epistemologies privilege one culture and one lens of history. This creates a sense of otherness for students attending the collegiate context from different backgrounds and other ways of knowing (Morreira, 2017). Utilizing a liberating pedagogy could have benefitted Ramanujan by empowering him with the efficacy to negotiate and manage his circumstances to curate meaning for himself, despite his marginalized position (Diab, et al., 2020). Further, a true decolonizing approach to pedagogy calls for a transformation of entire higher education systems through restructuring ways of knowing, methods of teaching, research, curriculum content, and course design (Mbembe, 2016).

Learning Experience:

In the film, Narayana Iyer, Ramanujan’s mentor, expresses hope for transformation when he states, “There is a whole world out there, and then there is England….if you, an Indian, are at the pinnacle of these functions then the British, even while the subjugate us, must recognize that our brightest matches theirs.” In a perfect world, I would employ a decolonizing pedagogy emphasizing the strategies outlined below.

Srinivasa Ramanujan 1887–1920

My starting point would be representation. Multicultural recruitment, retention, leadership, and mentorship create representation and spaces for non-colonial students to share non-western practices and ways of knowing (Curtis et al., 2014). Ramanujan met only one other Indian student at Cambridge, who understood and helped defend Ramanujan’s cultural values. This is highlighted when the other Indian student welcomes Ramanujan upon his arrival, and in the dining hall when he intervenes on behalf of Ramanujan to ensure he is not served meat. Having a greater support network and representation in leadership roles would provide familiarity and benefit Ramanujan in this context.

This tweet exemplifies the importance of rooting honesty with oneself first as a passage to honesty with others working toward transformations for the betterment of society.

Second, I would emphasize honesty and relationship building as key strategies in facilitating a decolonizing pedagogy. A study from the perspective of study abroad programs (Ogden, 2007) suggests that decolonizing paradigms can be aided by preparing students for the host cultures socialization norms so that they can build relationships, and by calling for, “international educators to remain as equally open and receptive to new learning pedagogies,” (p. 39), but Ramanujan had no such preparation for interactions or support of his ways of learning.

When Ramanujan arrives at Cambridge, he experiences unrelenting assimilation, accentuated in the following dialogue:

Hardy: “I mean, we need a common language, you wouldn’t expect us to converse with you in Tamil”

Ramanujan: “No, but you would expect me to speak English”

Hardy: “Quite”

By failing to address how colonization impacts relationships, Hardy upholds detrimental relational patterns by denying himself the opportunity to build a lateral and positive relationship with Ramanujan (Fellner, 2016). Icaza Garza, & Vázquez, (2018) posit that practicing relationality illuminates the detriments of unidirectional and authoritarian teachings. Honesty is highlighted by Fellner as an invaluable decolonizing teaching practice, stating that, “Such transparency normalizes and sheds light on internalized colonialism, fostering both self-compassion and accountability in personal and professional decolonizing processes,” (Fellner, 2018, p.286). Later on, Ramanujan is verbally attacked by a lecturer and even beaten up by British soldiers, in which both instances Hardy is aware but fails to acknowledge the injustice. If Hardy were to instead be honest with himself and Ramanujan, he would confront the inequity and discrimination, promoting accountability, and building a stronger, more empathetic relationship with Ramanujan.

Dev Patel as Ramanujan

Fellner (2018) highlights good relationships, a sense of belonging, honesty, and living a good life, among other things as integral parts of a framework necessary to carry out a decolonizing pedagogy. Ramanujan was systematically barred from nearly all of these assets in the context of Cambridge in 1914.

Third, I would introduce an embodied approach to teaching and learning. Based on Ramanujan’s cultural background, it seems that he would thrive in a more holistic, embodied approach. Evidence of this includes his past habit of praying in the temple to learn about math and his assertion that the math he does matters only because the equations are expressions of God. Prioritizing embodied learning encourages nondualism or a state of consciousness that reconnects the mind and body (Shahjahan, 2015). Ramanujan was an orthodox Hindu who often practiced meditation, so including meditation in the pedagogy would embrace Ramanujan’s cultural values and practices.

While still not necessarily a mainstream practice in classrooms, there is growing support for the benefits of mindfulness practice, as shown in this article:

In reference to Shahjahan’s (2015) mention of the Japanese symbol for “busy” translating to “soul is dead,” (Mayuzumi, 2006), the importance of an embodied pedagogy is highlighted when one of Hardy’s colleagues responds to Hardy’s concern about Ramanujan’s wellbeing by saying, “Well Hardy you’ve gotten your way, your damned rigor has finally broken his spirits, I warned you to let him run.” If Hardy were to take an asset-based approach (Santiago-Ortiz, 2018) by playing to his strengths and giving Ramanujan freedom of methods of inquiry, Ramanujan may have better maintained his health and may have produced more manifestations and discoveries. I put forth a call to prioritize the holistic embodied spirit of students over measurable outcomes (or proofs, in Ramanujan’s case). Ramanujan’s lack of support, and his forced assimilation, decreased his well-being, and paradoxically, his productivity.

Limitations of a Decolonizing Pedagogy Paradigm in Ramanujan’s Context:

The major barrier to employing a decolonizing pedagogy is how structurally ingrained, intertwined, and prominent neoliberalism is in this context, it would take a transformation of the entire system to successfully deconstruct colonialism and its implications.

Western pedagogies detach political, psychological, and social contexts from one another (Diab, et al., 2020), creating a divide of learners’ minds, bodies, and sociocultural positionalities. This division hinders a holistic approach to learning and can negatively impact student well-being. We see Ramanujan’s mental and physical health declined during his time in Europe, pinnacled when he attempts suicide. Despite this, many institutions are resistant to the use of holistic and embodied learning practices in lieu of learning outcome assessments (Shahjahan, 2015), especially in the hard-pure disciplines (Neumann, 2002).

In terms of discipline, Ramanujan was disadvantaged due to the assumed hierarchical knowledge structure and notions of a cumulative nature to the natural sciences (Bernstein 1999; Morreira, 2017). In mathematics, there are multiple ways to reach the same answer, which is highlighted in the film when determining how to find partitions by hand (Professor Cartwright) or by equation (performed by Ramanujan). That instance was pivotal for Ramanujan to build credibility and trust because he produced an answer through his own methods that reflected the same answer produced through the faculty’s methods.

Finally, Curtis et al., (2014) identify a barrier to incorporating more widespread ways of knowing into collegiate contexts, namely the negative effect many students associate with non-western ways of knowing. The faculty that surrounded Ramanujan did not take his methods seriously because they are derivative of a system that disregards and devalues non-western ways of knowing.

In conclusion, focusing on learning on the holistic self rather than on external factors such as epistemology norms and uniform methodology would have benefitted Ramanujan by allowing him the flexibility to learn in his own manner. Ramanujan faced a myriad of barriers of systematic oppression. Expanding epistemologies, utilizing transparency, and building relationships could have rescinded these barriers, but by maintaining them, I assert that the faculty at Cambridge disadvantaged and stifled the work of one of the most impactful mathematicians. This analysis calls for an expansion of epistemologies, decolonizing pedagogies, and an emphasis on relationship building in higher education contexts. [Word Count#1491]


Bernstein, B. (1999). Vertical and horizontal discourse: An essay. British journal of sociology of Education, 20(2), 157–173.

Curtis, E., Reid, P., & Jones, R. (2014). Decolonising the Academy: The process of re-presenting indigenous health in tertiary teaching and learning. In Māori and Pasifika higher education horizons. Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Diab, M., Veronese, G., Jamei, Y. A., & Kagee, A. (2020). The interplay of paradigms: Decolonizing a psychology curriculum in the context of the siege of Gaza. Nordic Psychology, 72(3), 183–198.

Fellner, K. D. (2016). Returning to our medicines: Decolonizing and Indigenizing mental health services to better serve Indigenous communities in urban spaces (Doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia).

Fellner, K. D. (2018). Embodying decoloniality: Indigenizing curriculum and pedagogy. American journal of community psychology, 62(3–4), 283–293.

Icaza Garza, R., & Vázquez, R. (2018). Diversity or Decolonization? Researching Diversity at the University of Amsterdam.

Mayuzumi, K. (2006). The tea ceremony as a decolonizing epistemology: Healing and Japanese women. Journal of Transformative Education, 4(1), 8–26.

Morreira, S. (2017). Steps towards decolonial higher education in Southern Africa? Epistemic disobedience in the humanities. Journal of Asian and African Studies, 52(3), 287–301.

Neumann, R., Parry, S., & Becher, T. (2002). Teaching and learning in their disciplinary contexts: A conceptual analysis. Studies in higher education, 27(4), 405–417.

Ogden, A. (2007). The view from the veranda: Understanding today’s colonial student. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 15(1), 35–56.

Santiago-Ortiz, J. D. (2018). From Critical to Decolonizing Service-Learning: Limits and Possibilities to Social Justice-based Approaches to Community Service Learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 25(1).

Shahjahan, R. A. (2015). Being ‘lazy’ and slowing down: Toward decolonizing time, our body, and pedagogy. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 47(5), 488–501.


The Man Who Knew Infinity (Director Matthew Brown) (2015, UK)

Map of European Colonized World:

Explanation of Ramanujan’s Impact on Mathematics:

Tweet from Adyashanti; a spiritual teacher devoted to serving the awakening of all beings. He emphasizes what is true and liberating at the core of existence:

Dev Patel Gif:

The Guardian Article:



Molly Hansen Carlisle

EAD 861 Student