Decolonizing CC: The Canon From a Computational Perspective

By Charlotte Li

Apr 18th, 2021

Search for how specific words are used in the CC curriculum, or check out the sample words provided below. Click on the authors to remove them from the tree (or add them back in).

indian colony savage slave universal women civilization


Criticisms of the Contemporary Civilization curriculum and the process of and the effort in changing it has been in the discourse among students and faculties. One article in the opinion section by Tommy Song criticized the Core for its origin in “Woodrow Wilson’s doctrines of intervention and anti-isolationism for the sake of capitalism and democracy, solidifying the belief that the West must decide the fate of other states and peoples”, as well as its acceptance of the “Eurocentric canons and practices, keeping the same ugly form that was established when Columbia was, as University President Butler declared 111 years ago, a ‘Christian institution.’” While another opinion article by Emmanuelle Saada, Chair of Contemporary Civilization, stated that the effort to change the pedagogical significance of Contemporary Civilization is reflected in the inclusion of “texts that explore and challenge assumptions about a ‘European tradition,’” these additions are also criticized by Tommy as feeling “tacked-on and last-minute.”

In my personal experience, I have learned a ton about how the discourses of the authors we read shaped our world, sometimes in very horrifying ways. We observed patterns in arguments made by different authors that established a foundation for practices in the world right now, and we also discovered the dependency of these works upon each other through reading the citations. Thus, I envisioned to capture these patterns in rhetorics and intertextual connections while also building a tool for more people to access and assess the CC curriculum for themselves.


In this project, I explored the CC curriculum through text analysis and visualizing a collection of 16 texts (The Republic, Politics, The Bible, The City of God, Volume I, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences, Leviathan, Second Treatise of Government, The Social Contract and Discourses, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Democracy in America, On Liberty, A Contribution to The Critique Of The Political Economy, On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection) by 15 authors (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Smith, Burke, Wollstonecraft, Tocqueville, Mill, Marx, and Darwin).

My first approach is to capture the discourse among these authors through observing their citational practices.I obtained these texts from project Gutenberg with Gutenberg,dammit library.

I then counted the occurrence of names of the other authors for each text, which produced a co-occurrence matrix. In the matrix, I eliminated occurrences of later authors in an earlier text. From the matrix, I developed this chord diagram which sketches the citation of other writers by the arcs. Each directed arc represents citation of an author by another author, and the width of the arc is scaled by the number of times a particular citation occurs.

There are several observations I made:


Extensive scholarly work has been done to evaluate the relationships and theories of these texts in the canon. An example can be the following from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

However, these works not only require a comprehensive understanding of these authors and their theories at a high level, which might require years of study, but they also barely focus on the colonial value and influence of these theories and the authors who wrote them.

I realized that it is hard to compute such interconnectedness in the high level understanding, but I can show the instances of similar treatments among authors of certain entities, which eventually creates the theories, ideas, or rhetorics used nowadays. I looked into prior projects that analyze meaning and associate several different occurrences of words, such as An Interactive Visualization of Every Line in Hamilton, and Jason Davies’s Word Tree. These projects inspired me to create the word tree representation of these texts.

To create the tree, I used D3.hierarchy and D3.partition. I parse the search word and its post context into a specific dependency tree structure which then is converted into a tree by D3.hierarchy and D3.partition provides some coordinates for node and link positions. (Lots of thanks to Jason Davies for helping me through this process). Lastly, I created the arc diagram and wrote the tree construction into an update function so it is interactive. One problem I encountered was the long processing time because of the large amount of the data to be tokenized, I solved this by breaking the data processing part into functions and creating a meta-tokenized text array when the page is loaded, (it still takes a bit to load the page, but the interaction is instant after this change).

Going Forward

I presented this project to both my CC class and my data viz class, and I think it is well received by both groups of people. While data visualization is a novel concept in the realm of humanities study (my CC class), Contemporary Civ is a familiar yet unexpected topic in data visualization. Thus, this project resonates with both communities, and continues to be a helpful tool for allowing more people to access the seemingly esoteric CC curriculum and for researching when writing CC papers.

Given that, this project is still in the works. Next steps include allowing the choice between a prior context tree and the current tree which only includes the post context of the keyword and making a more advanced search function where a phrase or a sentence can be searched. Several people have also suggested exploring more parameters of the authors and texts for more insights about them, as well as exploring the change of the curriculum through time. All of which will make this project more insightful and accessible.