I was in high school when I first heard about Allan Bloom's book "The Closing of the American Mind". This was my first introduction to the "cultural wars"... the epic struggle between the Canons of Dead White Male civilization and Political Multi-Post-Cultural-Relativistic Correctness. By default I tended to cheer for the second camp but as I grew older I tended to soften up on this a little.
I once saw Mortimer Adler (one of the pioneers of the University of Chicago's Great Books Program) on C-Span defending his curriculum against the standard criticism. Why aren't there more works by women? What about people of color? What about the works of the Buddha or Confucius? Aren't those "great books" too? Adler's basic response was that by excluding non-Western voices he wasn't really making a judgement call. The point isn't that Shakespeare and Plato are really greater than Rumi and Confucius. The point is that books of the Western canon don't just exist in isolation, instead they reflect and respond to one another and participate in what he called the Great Conversation.
As Adler puts it:
"What binds the authors together in an intellectual community is the great conversation in which they are engaged. In the works that come later in the sequence of years, we find authors listening to what their predecessors have had to say about this idea or that, this topic or that. They not only harken to the thought of their predecessors, they also respond to it by commenting on it in a variety of ways."
And rightly or wrongly, Adler argued, non-Western and non-dominant voices were historically excluded from participation in that Conversation.
The corollary, of course, is that there could be other "canons of Great Books" which serve as milestones for those other conversations. Latin America, Africa and her Diaspora, the "Orient", Confucian civilization, etc. Instead of being bothered by Adler's Dead White Male canon, I should just figure out which conversations are "mine" and then swim the depths of those particular oceans of ideas.
For example (and this is where the Valentine's Day connection comes in) if I'm going to be an educated member of the Muslim community, I should probably try to be more familiar with the canons of the Muslim conversation. And so on the fourteenth I was thinking to myself that I should get around to reading at least one version of the great "Oriental" love story of Layla and Majnun. I already read Romeo and Juliet in high school, but even that work is somewhat derrivative of the former. In some ways, Layla and Majnun is also reminiscent of the Song of Solomon in the sense that both texts can be read literally as being about physical romantic love, or metaphorically as beaing about spiritual divine love.
More on the canon(s) later...