'Gilgamesh' Banned From Classes

March 13, 1991|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff writer

A parent's complaint has prompted school officials to pull a classicpoem from high school literature classes, but an English teacher has appealed to the county school board.

A sexual reference in Herbert Mason's translation of "The Epic of Gilgamesh" led a Westminster parent to challenge the book last September, said Gary Dunkleberger, director of curriculum and staff development.

The board will rule on the matter at its meeting next Wednesday.

Dated as far back as 2500 B.C., "Gilgamesh" is considered the world's oldest surviving work of fiction and has been part of world literature classes in Carroll high schools since at least 1981, Dunkleberger said. The elective class is taken mostly by upperclassmen.

After the complaint, a Reconsideration Committee decided in January that the book should remain in class. The nine-person committee includes faculty, an administrator, two parents and two high school students.

But the parent who complained appealed to the superintendent, and Dunkleberger, as the superintendent's designee, concluded that the particular translation contained an inappropriate reference to oral sex.

"Gilgamesh" is the first book to go through such a review in at least four years, Dunkleberger said. He said he didn't know what otherbooks may have been pulled for similar reasons.

If the school board upholds Dunkleberger's decision, the language arts supervisor would have to decide for next fall whether to use another translation, use only part of the poem, or substitute another epic poem.

"It is not our intention to recommend removal from students of the opportunity to read 'Gilgamesh,' " Dunkleberger said. "The word 'ban' is not the right word. It's 'to remove approval of (the book) for use as a textbook.' "

But Dunkleberger said he didn't know whether a teacher would be allowed to recommend the Mason translation to students without requiring it.

A ban would remove the book from the libraries, hesaid, which has not occurred.

Dottie Farley, English department chairwoman at Liberty High, filed the appeal to the school board. She said other teachers will be joining her to urge the school board Wednesday to keep the book in classes. State law allows anyone to appeal a decision by the superintendent to the board.

"I think the decision is wrong," said Farley, who has taught in Carroll County for 17 years. "Carroll County is on the threshold of banning a 4,000-year-old universally accepted piece of literature which is absolutely indispensable in the teaching of world literature . . . based on a single passage taken out of context."

She said she disagreed with Dunkleberger's distinction between removing a book from classes and banning it.

"When a book is removed from the classroom on the basis of a single parent's complaint . . . that's censorship," Farley said.

The parent -- whom Dunkleberger declined to identify -- also claimed the poem referred to bestiality and portrayed prostitution in a somewhat positive light. . But Dunkleberger said he found no basis for those claims.

The epic poem concerns Gilgamesh, a powerful king in Babylonia, and his search for immortality.

In the story, a temple harlot is sent to the forest to find Enkidu, a man raised by wild animals, and bring him to the human world, using her sexuality.

A prominent translation of "Gilgamesh" by N. K. Sandars does not contain the oralsex reference, but Sandars' version is in prose form rather than theverse Mason uses based on the original poem.

In the Mason translation, the harlot, upon meeting Enkidu, "bent down and moistened him with her lips then drew him/Slowly to the ground."

Courts give muchmore discretion to school boards in removing books from the curriculum than from the library, said Anne Levinson, assistant director of the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom in Chicago.

A federal court judge two years ago upheld the Columbia County, Fla., school board's decision to remove two classic works, "TheMiller's Tale" by Geoffrey Chaucer and "Lysistrata" by Aristophanes,Levinson said.

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