The Man Who Knew Infinity: Decolonizing Pedagogy

Introduction

The Man Who Knew Infinity is a film following Indian Mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan from Madras, India. Ramanujan is a gifted individual who can see patterns and numbers that others cannot. Ramanujan’s gift afforded him the opportunity to travel to the University of Cambridge where he worked alongside famous mathematician G.H. Hardy and spent several months working on mathematical theories. Ramanujan’s time in England however was a huge adjustment for him as he encountered racial prejudice and had his cultural practices not taken into consideration. He faced a lot of backlash for not having the proper education or training, and the faculty felt that he did not deserve to be there. Ramanujan had to adjust to the University’s style of teaching and learning which was seen to be difficult for him throughout the film. Ramanujan’s biggest struggle was proving an explanation for his mathematical theories because they came from the words spoken of his god Namagiri. Due to his advisor Professor Hardy being an atheist, it was hard for Hardy to accept that as an answer.

The University of Cambridge and Ramanujan’s experience would have greatly benefited if the idea of decolonizing pedagogy was put into practice during Ramanujan’s visit. Icaza & Vásquez, (2018) states decolonzizing pedagogy as a perspective that allows us to see how dynamics of power differences, social exclusion, and discrimination are connected to the reproduction of colonial history. In this article, I will explain why the adoption of the decolonizing paradigm is appropriate for this collegiate context. I will provide examples how this can be done to help faculty such as Professor Hardy at Cambridge University better understand students like Ramanujan who comes from a different background. I will then discuss limitations that may come with this approach. This clip below does a great job at providing insight into Ramanujan’s gift.

Decolonizing Paradigm

The decolonizing paradigm is an appropriate framework for constructing the collegiate learning experience of Ramanujan because he learns differently than everyone at the university. Ramanujan heavily relies on intuition and uses that as his explanation for constructing new mathematical equations. However, Hardy tells Ramanujan that intuition is not enough to be held accountable. Hardy’s entire life has been about numbers and science so evidence and proof are what makes items credible to Professor Hardy. Evidence and proof is something foreign to Ramanujan due to the lack of education and training. Ramanujan’s version of credibility is trusting his faith in his god. If the University of Cambridge were open to this style of learning and supported Ramanujan’s way of knowing, Ramanujan wouldn’t have been in such conflict.

Through bringing indigenous pedagogy into the class, students come to embody decolonization and move toward indigenizing (Fellner, 2018). Incorporating indigenous pedagogy will begin to allow considerations for various ways of learning. Williams & Brant (2019) discuss how transformative learning theory could provide learners with tools to actively question assumptions in western culture narratives such as the scientific method as a way of knowing. This awareness and critique to the ways of knowing is what the faculty at Cambridge needed to start doing once they were aware of how Ramanujan’s obtains his knowledge. It was clear in the film that both forms on knowledge worked (Cambridge’s form and Ramanujan’s form), but since it wasn’t the “right” way, faculty rejected it. Who is to say that the faculty’s way of knowing is right? Is it because it’s the dominant perspective? These questions are what the decolonizing paradigm begins to ask and have us start thinking about.

Educating Professor Hardy

It is seen throughout the movie that Professor Hardy has a position of power at the University of Cambridge so I believe that he will greatly benefit from a learning experience that challenges his way of knowing. Providing Professor Hardy with this knowledge and experience is a great way to start implementing inclusive change at the university, especially because Hardy had the most interaction with Ramanujan. Through those interactions, Professor Hardy acknowledged that there may be a higher way of knowing that is different from his own.

To further help Professor Hardy’s understanding and journey to acquiring a new perspective lens, I propose introducing Iyinisiwak’s seven medicines (Fellner, 2018), with an emphasis on three. These include love, indigenous knowledge, and identity and belonging. These three serve as a door to inclusion. Love offers racial acceptance and love, indigenous knowledge offers multiple ways of knowing, then finally identity and belonging help students come to understand who they are and help them understand their purpose. An emphasis on these three medicines will work towards a more inclusive space of acceptance.

The next item that can aid Professor Hardy to acquire his new lens is to incorporate an indigenous food system degree (Williams & Brant, 2019). This is so students such as Ramanujan are put into consideration when it comes to food as seen with Ramanujan’s dietary restriction in the film. The Indigenous food systems program will support learners to learn about the various dimensions of Indigenous food systems. An understanding of food systems will lead to more inclusive practices. In the film, Ramanujan could not eat in the dining common because all the food offered went against his cultural beliefs and practices. Williams and Brant (2019) argue that colonialism has drastically reduced Indigenous peoples’ land base for subsistence food production and has erased traditional pieces of knowledge, including those related to food production and preparation. Indigenous food sovereignty provides a restorative framework of past social and environmental injustices that people of all cultures can relate to. “Food will be what brings the people together”- Secwepemc Elder, Jones Ignace.

Finally, the last item for this learning experience designed for Mr. Hardy is Adopting a lens that accepts both ways of knowing so that we can better understand our students. We can’t assume that students leave their culture at the door (Morreira, 2017). Although I am in support of decolonizing pedagogy, I do not believe that completely rejecting the other way of knowing would be beneficial. As I mentioned earlier, Ramanujan’s way of knowing and the faculty at Cambridge’s way of knowing both works. We have to step away from seeing one form higher than the other and instead see them as equals. Adopting this lens will help faculty understand students and will be more inclusive to the different learning styles that students possess.

Ramanujan brought his culture with him to England when he was studying at Cambridge hence why he experienced so much resistance from the faculty. The faculty should not have expected him to assimilate into their culture and do things their way. An example of this was seen during a scene when Ramanujan was sitting in class and not taking notes. Ramanujan explained that he did not need to because he truly understood what was being taught, while also withholding information about receiving the information from his god. The professor saw this as an act of disrespect and assumed that there was no possible way Ramanujan could understand the material. I believe this misunderstanding and close-mindedness to other ways of knowing can be very damaging to students. The faculty needs to be more open different forms of knowledge. Professor Hardy finally came to accept this idea at the end of the movie but imagine how much easier things could have been if he was open with the idea from the beginning.

Limitations

The biggest limitation for this decolonizing pedagogy paradigm would be resistance. Fellner (2018) states that students are use to learning through the euro western perspective so being challenged with this paradigm may manifest in anger, frustration, and other intense emotions in the classroom. This can also be seen with the faculty in the film as they are use to their traditional practices and limits them to consider other avenues. Another limitation would be the world event of World War I happening during this time when Ramanujan was at Cambridge. This paradigm will be overlooked and will be hard to implement due to the attention on the war. Faculty may even be more quick to dismiss it.

Conclusion

Ramanujan’s experience in the film is an example of what many students go through. Although Ramanujan was exceptionally gifted, individuals who had a higher status could not see his capabilities because of his beliefs, and background. A decolonizing paradigm would be appropriate for constructing collegiate learning experiences because it will allow for students such as Ramanujan to be accepted for his way of knowing. A learning experience that incorporates Iyinisiwak’s seven medicines, education on indigenous food systems, and recognition that multiple forms of knowledge are acceptable, will serve as a step to helping Professor Hardy understand Ramanujan and other students that are similar. This paradigm ultimately helps us to step out of ourselves and to consider other perspectives and possibilities. (1500)

References

Brown, M. (Director). (2015). The man who knew infinity [Film]. Pressman Film.

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History (2019, December 26). Ancient Aliens: Ramanujan’s Alien Visions [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNFfZ3MU1nQ

Icaza, R., & Vásquez, R. (2018). Diversity or décolonisation? researching diversity at the university of amsterdam. In Decolonizing the University (pp. 108–128).

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