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Thoughtful Research

History Lesson #17: Whose Historic Heritage is it?

We've heard lately of the outrage in teaching the Critical Race Theory (CRT). I personally had no problem with this particular idea IF it is taught to balance what in the past could be called "patriotic history" or conqueror's history.  U.S. history has been taught (as do other nations, no doubt) to show itself in a good light to make us good citizens. I can see blending CRT into a seamless history narrative to show what our country was really like. This is a nation of immigration, of pushing aside native Indians for the land, of importing blacks to work the huge plantations of crops, of throwing off the British yoke of economic oppression for the sake and need to conquer the entire country; all of these things need to be taught in a seamless approach.

 

I read recently in Madison's own Ithmus, a free quality paper they publish monthly (January 2022), something that made me want to look further into what happened to standardized education in this country. I agreed long ago that history needs to be taught with an objective approach, but today's history seems to be further segmented. Ruth Coniff, author of "The Unraveling of public education in Wisconsin," talks about a tribal college in Hayward helping to launch a conservative charter school further south in Oconomowoc -- Lake Country Classical Academy. This school has a "1776 curriculum," Trump's answer to CRT, and she refers to this revelation as shining "a light on the unraveling of public education in Wisconsin." More specifically, this is the unraveling of our historic heritage.

 

The problem may be one of the unregulated education of charter schools. We had a new one open up here in Beloit, called "The Lincoln Academy," which I'll look at further in a moment. But to get more into what has outraged me here into noting the danger of this unraveling of public education, from the viewpoint of these Ojibwe college authorities: "The U.S. government has just shredded Ojibwe knowledge and indigenous knowledge. So for me, the big thing is educational sovereignty. Parents have the right to educate their kids the way they see fit."

 

Yes, they do. At home. If we have a proper educational system, all history being taught would be objective over-arching history, summarizing the experiences of all the people who've lived it, and stimulating the children into looking at their specific interests. But have we ever had that? I came to my history master's degree late in life; in 2006 I was 53 years old. In high school history was my most dreaded subject. Learning dates and names was never my strong suit; still isn't. Did I at that time believe I was being indoctrinated? Perhaps. I had the misfortune of communicating with that history teacher after getting my master's and learned he was a Trump supporter, too, as are many in my high school graduating class. I have never been one to support white supremacy, not ever, though I have voted Republican in the past (not since Reagan's first term, though). And when I attended my first history class, just for fun, with a very liberal history professor while going for my BA in communications, I was both shocked and delighted, and switched my major.

 

While going for my BA in Green Bay, I discovered the horrors of Columbus and began to promote changing Columbus Day to Diversity Day. I still remember my conservative professor, who said to me we shouldn't try to change history. I didn't want to change it, I replied. I just want the truth to be known. These conflicting attitudes indicate that we have history teaching problems yet today.

 

Why can't kids learn real history? Because they might come to hate the U.S.? I didn't. Teachers need to have history sensitivity training, I think, to teach that attitude of the history players is what created those events, and how we're all human. Yes, even Lincoln.

 

"Right to educate how we see fit." Does that pertain to school systems? It shouldn't. Because it's part of what further divides this country into camps. You want a president like Biden to be a moderate, and yet he's got the lowest approval rating ever. Why? Because he can't satisfy a single one of these "camps." Tribal sovereignty wants to establish their own charter schools so they, too, can teach their kids any way they want. This is what Trump's reaction to CRT meant, his insistence that patriotic history is all that matters. This shows how the mis-election of someone who had no business being president continues to erode at that idea that we were or could still be "united states."

 

Coniff speaks strictly from a Wisconsin view. She says that in 2011 Wisconsin's legislature (under a GOP governor) cut per pupil spending by $554 across the state. Per pupil. That's a significant amount. If you were to watch a new T.V. series called "Abbott Elementary," you would see them struggling for lack of funds in a public school. And you would call teachers heroes for struggling against all kinds of odds. Even Democratic Governor Evers has had no luck raising the budget of spending on schools with his Republican legislature; well, you have to blame them as Evers was Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction. But the state continues to funnel money into these charter schools.

 

The situation is complex, we can telling from looking at Coniff's list of what entities can authorize charter schools:

UW's Office of Educational Opportunity, Milwaukee's common council, the chancellors of UW System schools, technical college district boards, the Waukesha county executive, and the state's two tribal colleges -- The College of the Menominee Nation and the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College. Imagine all these 'lower case' unnamed people able to say parents have the right to chose how their kids are educated, and the possibility that this choice is racially biased.

 

The one thing I know about history is that there are two (or more) sides to every story. That's the problem with parental choice. What side do they want for their kids? If it's not objective history, it will only further divide us as people trying to live in a single culture. That's almost a laugh, isn't it? A single culture here in the U.S.? But I digress.

 

If a charter school is authorized by any of these lower-case entities, then they qualified for a grant from the state. To be clear, the one in Oconomowoc is a tribal-related entity, but it does not just serve tribal members. This academy's founder, Kristina Vourax, according to Coniff, noted, "We have a mixture of all backgrounds." The burden on the city where these kids come from to fund the school is astronomical, too. What does this do to other schools in the area? Are they operating at a loss?

 

Coniff ends her article with a bit of a whimper. "That cost includes our shared interest in maintaining high-quality public schools for all Wisconsin children." Well, yes it does. But what about solutions? Are there any? I'm suspecting that the normal subjects of reading and writing, and learning math to be able to perform in society are still being taught. Focus is more on computers than it ever was when I was in school. But the most divisive subject is history, and that's my concern here. If charter schools are allowed to teach history any way they want, we have an over-arching regulatory problem. Not that public schools have been doing better. But it sounds like charter schools are being allowed to further divide our historical roots.

 

Let's look at little closer at another example: The Lincoln Academy here in Beloit. Now I have to say, first off, that since moving to Beloit four years ago, our property tax has gone up over $700, and this with no further services added and no further assessment upgrade on our house. We lived in a town in Oconto County for 40 years and never saw more than a $100 increase /decrease in any given year. Can we relate this increase to educational changes?

 

I went to this charter school's website and learn they call themselves a "public charter."  Here's what I found about that designation:

 

A public charter school is a school that's publicly funded, free to attend, and run by independent contracts. Often, people will confuse public charter schools with private schools, but they are quite different in terms of funding, accessibility, and structure. Whereas public charters are free for students to attend, private schools are tuition-based and aren't regulated by the government. Private schools also tend to have looser regulatory standards, whereas public charters need to uphold an agreed-upon charter that's set up by a board. Public charter schools are also different from traditional public schools. Contrary to some myths, the biggest difference between the two isn't that they're regulated; it's how they're regulated. Traditional public schools follow a strict set of guidelines that are set by the school district. Public charter schools still need to follow federal laws and regulations, but they're not tied to a district school board. Instead, they follow guidelines that are set up by a separate, independent board. 

 

That would explain that increase in our property taxes, and no, we had no say. My husband said our Republican legislature had that say for us. Then I took a look at the curriculum, K through high school, and not a single history class to be found anywhere. How is not teaching history a solution?

 

Be assured that if objective history is not being taught at any grade level, people will pick and choose what to believe about our nation's history. Here's a good comment about how history is being taught today, and it appears it hasn't changed in 50 years:

 

Currently, most students learn history as a set narrative—a process that reinforces the mistaken idea that the past can be synthesized into a single, standardized chronicle of several hundred pages. This teaching pretends that there is a uniform collective story, which is akin to saying everyone remembers events the same.

 

Okay, this article was dated 2015, but that's not all that long ago, just previous to Trump.

 

I tried to sell an article on political correctness once, where I make the point that history teachers need better training so they know how to teach history. Instead of banning Mark Twain from the classroom, figuring out how to explain the racism in our history could have a positive impact on students, especially with the explanation about how we're all better people for understanding that we're all human. History is a humanities issue, after all. I don't understand how hard that can be. We ban what we don't want to face, what makes us uncomfortable, or can show us in a negative light. We need to see that negative light throughout our history to understand our country today.

 

One problem noted was that "When historians begin to explain and interpret facts and events, they are using their personal judgments and opinions." If they are trained properly, they will learn how to interpret those events using only the attitudes of those who lived and created those events, not their own. Maybe that's what we're missing today. No one should interpret the past with today's viewpoints.

 

No, it's not possible to teach everything about every immigration pattern or indigenous prehistory. Is it even possible to give them a sense of belonging to this world? Of course it is. If history teachers are taught to be objective, it will be amazing what they can teach. If they are freed of the restrictions of pretending that that our "American" history can do no wrong, then true immigration and true native indigenous history will emerge. It has to. Because that's what this country is.

 

Sources in addition to Ithmus:

https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/03/the-problem-with-history-classes/387823/

 

https://www.thelincolnacademybeloit.com/ 

 

https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/readers-respond/bs-ed-rr-history-instruction-letter-20210629-nmnfpbrbk5hjbmpgq2k6ctf2ae-story.html 

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Became a Fanfic Authorized Novelist

Back in 1992 I was head of "the Bonanza Board" on Prodigy's internet site. I had found no other Bonanza fan sites and since I had just started writing Bonanza fanfic for a western fanzine, craved communicating with other fans.  

 

It was a different kind of internet back then.  There was email but no IM'ing and the sites did not send email from other people directly into your inbox.  Instead, you had to link onto the public bulletin board to read what others wrote to your posts.

 

I got nearly an immediate response to the start of this Bonanza fan site, and the first online Bonanza-dom was born. Inside that universe I found what I did not expect -- all the anger toward Pernell Roberts (Adam) for leaving the show. I openly confessed there that after Roberts left I lost interest in the show, so many of those who came together under this Prodigy roof began to revile me.  I remember my son Adam getting on my computer to blast at people who were blasting me.

 

In early 1993, with several short stories published and a Bonanza novel idea conjured, I heard that they were making a new Bonanza TV movie. This fueled the fire in me to write a movie script. But immediately after hearing about the movie I thought this would be the perfect time to sell my Bonanza stories, as part of my goal as a published writer. So I found David Dortort's address in the Who's Who at the library and wrote, telling him about the Prodigy Bonanza Board where fans gathered to talk about the show. I sent him a fanfic story I'd written along with a brief story of how Bonanza saved me life several times, and my goal of keeping the series alive and picking up new fans along the way.

 

Now the story of my life might not be unusual to some, but it caught his eye. I told him that Ben Cartwright, and not my parents, taught me how to be a parent, someone who does not play favorites with their children, as my parents and their parents had done. I also told him that I had three children, which had been my goal because of Bonanza, and also that my sons' names were Adam and Bennett (Ben) and husband's name was Joe.  Coincidence?  My daughter, however, would not let us call her Hoss. All three of my children possess qualities similar in birth order to the three Cartwrights. Bonanza saved my life by helping me recover from the death of my sister and my dad, and also helped me to stop smoking.

 

I didn't really expect a response.  His show had tons of fans after all, as I was coming to learn firsthand, and he probably got tons of letters like mine.

 

In June, I was contacted through the Prodigy board by Danny Sarnoff, assistant producer of the Bonanza TV movie, Bonanza the Return, and the Bonanza retrospect due to air that November.  He told me that Mr. Dortort would be in touch with me shortly. Of course you can imagine my reaction - I jumped out of my chair, ran upstairs, ignored the supper burning and dragged my husband down to see if it really said what I thought it said! 

 

Thus began Sarnoff's correspondence with my fan board. He wanted our help, you see, sent there by Dortort to get the pulse of the fan world. Sarnoff, as Dortort's rep, wanted us to help choose favorite clips to use in the Retrospect. We had months of fun with this, but the pending specials also led to more angry discussions when fans realized that Mitch Vogel and David Canary would be ignored in the movie and not given much attention in the Retrospect.

 

I also emailed privately with Sarnoff, and heard about problems with filming along the way, including trying to get Pernell to host the retrospect (he wanted too much money ws what I was told).  Sarnoff also agreed to read the script I'd written for a potential second TV movie, impressed that I'd written it even before the first movie aired.  Well, heck, if you know Bonanza, you know Bonanza, right?  Once I heard about the characters, I knew I could write them.

 

By the end of that month I received my first letter from Mr. Dortort.  He was extremely gracious in his response, while delivering bad news.  He told me that he appreciated my writing, but that Stephen Calder had an exclusive contract to write Bonanza novels through the end of 1994.  Now, no offense to Calder (or the two writers who comprise the pen name), but it seemed Calder never saw the show but once or twice and penned westerns, rather than historicals, which is what Bonanza was. Undaunted, I felt Dortort should at least consider my movie script. I sent a copy to Sarnoff, but also sent one to David. 

 

Meanwhile the Board anticipated these big Bonanza events -- we even saw mention of our Prodigy board in one of the national news promotion articles! And we were all delightfully surprised that both the movie and retrospect pulled in good ratings; the movie was #6 for the week and the Retrospect in the top 20.

 

After the fun was over, David told me that the second Bonanza movie script was already chosen but he appreciated my interest in writing one. Feeling I had a much better script than the first and maybe even the second, I queried NBC and various production companies who might be willing to look at it.  But I understood their reluctance. You see, in my script I brought Adam back to the ranch to 'die.'  I felt sure Pernell Roberts would relish killing Adam off. He'd never had a farewell on the series. I kept in touch with David, telling him all the places I was sending the script, and I kept telling him that I just knew Pernell would do this script.  

 

In the meantime the second movie bombed and it seemed no one would take a chance on making a Bonanza movie again -- unless, I figured, we could convince Pernell to be a part of it.

 

For three years I continued these efforts, in the meantime going back to college to get a B.A. in history and finishing other writing projects, during which time my brother Bill moved to Los Angeles. I thought about visiting him, and knocking on some producers' doors; I also wrote some other, non-Bonanza movie scripts. I wrote to David in April 1996, telling him I was going to be in LA and would he like to talk about the Bonanza script in person? He wrote back, gave me his phone number and told me to call him when I got to town.

 

I booked my plane ticket that same day.  

 

Bill worked as an 'extra' for movies and television. I stayed at his little apartment, where he didn't have any furniture except a TV where he could watch Christian broadcasting. He gave me his mattress on the floor and slept on a blanket. I called all kinds of agents and producers about my other scripts, but the goal was to talk to David about the 'perfect' Bonanza sequel movie script. My hand shook as I dialed his phone number.  He answered the phone and sounded glad to hear I'd made it to town; we set up a 2 p.m. meeting at his house.

 

Since I had to find my way to his house, near UCLA, on a bus, I got to campus at 11 a.m. I followed his directions until I stopped in front of the big wrought iron gates, with an intercom button to announce my arrival. But I still had over two hours to wait. So I took a walk on the UCLA campus. I bought a bottle of water, read a while, and looked for a restroom.  

 

To make a long story short(er), I got lost on the UCLA campus! 

 

It happened during my search for a restroom. Finally after a long walk with the fear of entering a strange college building, and with no gas station around that I could find, I found a movie house that was open. But the women's restroom was broke, so I had to use the men's. When I came out, I must have been in a hurry and turned the wrong way. All I had to do was find that bus stop and I could find my way back to Dortort's house. 

 

Well, there must be more than one bus stop because everyone gave me different directions.  My feet hurt, my makeup ran, I was sweating out of every pore on this hot June day in the black clothes I wore. Swearing, sweating, crying, at 1:45 I finally found the bus stop. I took off my shoes and ran with nyloned feet in the grass along the side of Wilshire Boulevard. 

 

I could imagine what people were thinking – "she must be making a movie."

 

Somehow, I managed to ring Mr. Dortort's intercom bell at 2:00 p.m.

 

The intercom clicked on.  "Hello?"

 

"Hello, Mr. Dortort?!"

 

"Yes?"

 

"It's Monette, here for our 2:00 meeting?"

 

"Oh yes." I jumped back as the iron fence opened.

 

Then it was all uphill. The Dortorts lived on the top of a hill with a driveway winding around a beautifully tended garden of all kinds of flowers. At the top of the driveway, which did nothing to help me get my breath back, I saw David and Rose Dortort standing in front of their house, waiting for me.

 

As I reached them I shook their hands in a kind of stuttered greeting, and then David took me in his arms and gave me a big Bonanza hug.  One of the basic things to know about David is his extreme devotion to Bonanza and to all who love it. If there is one man in the world who is proud of his legacy, it was David Dortort (he died in 2010), and his affectionate nature is part of what made Bonanza great.

 

They took me inside the most wonderful house I'd ever had the pleasure to visit, big rooms, dark oak trim, but I didn't get a tour. Instead David took me into his library -- walls and walls of books, the sight of which made this Bonanza writer sigh -- and we got down to business.

 

David has such a friendly face, so when the first words he spoke came out in anger I nearly bolted from the house. "What did you think you were doing, sending that script out to studios without my permission? Do you always do things the hard way?"

 

Stunned and suddenly so scared I stammered in response, "I guess so, Mr. Dortort.  But...what's the easy way?  No one's ever told me."

 

 Well, that made him laugh. I tried to explain that I kept him informed of every place I sent it, all the while hoping to convince him to read it. I was even more unprepared for the next thing he said. "So what do you hear from Pernell?"

 

 I think the world stopped at that moment. I understood immediately what I'd done and wanted nothing more than a big rock to crawl under.

 

"You said you knew Pernell would do this script. Did he tell you that? Has he read it?"

 

By telling Mr. Dortort, "I just know Pernell would do this," he got the idea that I knew Pernell personally.  

I explained that I felt Pernell would want a chance to get the 'goodbye' on the show he never had. I gave David all the reasons I could think of why I thought that. And then he opened up. For the next two hours, David talked. He told me things I'm not sure he's ever shared. I didn't record him or even write things down, because I felt he wouldn't be comfortable. The gist of it was that he recognized that even though Ben Cartwright never played favorites, he did -- and he regretted not recognizing it at the time. 

 

He told me that the episode, "the Gamble," credited to Landon, was mostly his, that he was proud of getting Landon started on his very lucrative writing and producing career.  But no, since the day Pernell left, he has not been in touch. And that, along with timing, allowed me in his house.  He had hoped -- and I let him down -- that I could help bridge that gap with Pernell.

 

But he also loved my script. He finally did read it, you see, once he realized I was coming to LA. He said my capture of the characters was right on. But he wanted a rewrite. He didn't think we were going to get Pernell for anything more than a cameo. He didn't know if we could get it made, because the second Bonanza movie bombed. And yes, he also knew why -- they had to re-cast the actor who played Adam Jr. Alistair McDougall had been hugely popular with the fans but he got picked to do a TV pilot and backed out of the second movie. The second Adam Jr. looked too much like a Little Joe fan.

 

He talked about the two of us writing another script together, and in the months that followed, we did that by mail and by phone, until Adam was no longer in the script at all. Pernell never responded to either of us. Then I got the idea that David was embarrassed to have been working with me at all, because  he told me to never tell anyone -- which is also what Sarnoff told me. The last script idea David had was to write a Hoss script where Dirk Blocker would play both Hoss and Hoss's son. He felt bad that he didn't have Dirk Blocker play Hoss's son in the two movies. But Dirk was excellent in the role he did have. I couldn't do it. I told him that.  So even though he agreed to let me publish Felling of the Sons for 10% of the royalties, he decided we could no longer write together.

 

Neither I nor my agent could find a traditional publisher for Felling of the Sons because the Calder novels did so poorly. But I did stay in touch with David over the years, and even though at times he could be a little cruel, most of my memories of communications with him are positive ones. I remember many times listening to him rant and rave about Beth Sullivan's new series, Ponderosa, the prequel to Bonanza. I even sent two of my scripts to the series producer, but with bad timing -- too late for first season and the series never got a second season.

 

We also talked on the phone about Mystic Fire, my second Bonanza novel.  I got permission from Bonanza Ventures to produce and publish this within two years of the contract, but since I had just started back to school to get a master's in history, I asked David to amend that and he did, to 'whenever I get it available.'  He didn't like me going for my history master's though, which surprised me. I felt it made me a better researcher.

 

Because of this master's degree, I feel Mystic Fire has a lot more validity as historical fiction, showing Lincoln for what he was really like in 1862, something I could not have done without better research on my nonfiction book on the Civil War. He loved that I knew so much about the Civil War, too, because he considered himself the eminent Civil War historian of his day in Hollywood. I was able to deliver him a copy of Mystic Fire in September, 2009, the year before he died.  But I'll never know what he thought of it. He said he though Felling read too much like episodes from the series -- and I took that as a compliment.

 

And now, though he's gone, I continue to try to keep Bonanza out there and help draw in more fans for the series. Because that's what it's all about; the series is important, more than my writing. With hope that the future of Bonanza is as secure in the hands of its fans as it was in the heart and mind of its creator, a man who recognized that we're all human, we make mistakes, but not in loving the four Cartwrights, who still represent pure family moral values. That and the fact that it was the first color TV drama means it should never go out of style.

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