The Meaning of “When”

Aaron Astor

I was recently asked to join a local committee to plan the centennial celebration of our local school district. The City of Maryville, Tennessee's public system was poised to commemorate its 100th anniversary in 2013 with lots of festivities and a nice, photo-filled book fleshing out the district’s long and storied past. But then the project hit a strange snag.  It came to the attention of the centennial committee chair that 2013 might not actually be the centennial of the Maryville City School system after all.

In somewhat of a panic, the chairwoman sent me an email detailing her extensive search for the “true” date of the school system’s founding. The first schoolhouse appeared in Maryville as early as 1797.  Still, 1913 was important. It was the year Tennessee passed a compulsory education law (southern states were quite late in the game).  It was also the year that Maryville High School first planned its four-year curriculum, though the first class would not graduate until 1919.  However, the state approved a “special school district”, with taxing authority, for the city as early as 1905.  And the first major schools were not built until 1911.  Adding to the confusion is the fact that there had been some semblance of schooling on the site of Maryville High School as early as 1867. Interestingly enough, it was known as the Maryville Freedmen’s Institute, and it served the relatively small ex-slave population of the county. As a final irony, the high school’s nickname is, you guessed it, the Rebels—despite the staunchly pro-Union leanings of Maryville and East Tennessee during the Civil War. The commemorative volume will surely delve into that oft-controversial piece of history.

But the question of dates persisted.  Before we could get into the thorny questions surrounding the school’s nickname, or the warm and fuzzy memories of graduating classes in years gone by, we had to determine if this was even the right time to do it.  And if we “discovered” that 1913 was the wrong founding date, should we then change our school district seal, which has the 1913 date on it?

And so the question boiled down to the meaning of “when”—as in, when was the school system founded? And more importantly, why does that matter?

Amusingly, this very same question—the meaning of “when” —came up when an old friend and colleague from grad school—Greg Downs of City College of New York—came down to the University of Tennessee and delivered a fascinating lecture on the “Ends of the Civil War.”  As he pointed out in colorful detail, the question of “when did the Civil War end” is a very difficult one to resolve. Lee’s surrender? What about Johnston’s surrender? Or a General in Texas who surrendered? Or when President Johnson declared an end to the state of war (in 1866)? Or myriad other times in between? (See Heather Cox Richardson’s recent post on a related matter.)  As Downs pointed out, this was not a mere antiquarian question. It had real legal consequences. After all, if a state of war still existed, the US government could still apply martial law.  Local court systems could still be suspended. And so on. The question of “when” was inextricably bound to the question of “why”, “how” and, of course, “so what?”

Maryville's first school, founded in 1797
My answer to the Maryville City Schools Centennial Committee chair, then, was to declare that it is up to us, as historians, to declare “when” the school system was founded. As long as we could make a compelling argument for why that date made sense, then there was no reason we couldn’t stick with that date. The chairwoman was clearly relieved to hear from a professional historian that it was OK for us to “pick” a date. Any date, as she also concluded, would be somewhat arbitrary.

Much of the historical profession focuses on how events unfold, why they take the shape they do, what their significance is for later history, and how people of the time—and perhaps later on in the collective memory—make sense of those events. But it is quite rare that we really interrogate the “when” part of history, except insofar as we “complicate” earlier chronologies.   The reality is that every time we select a set of dates to bookend a historical phenomenon—a war, a revolution, a religious awakening, the establishment of the Maryville City School district—we are making a profoundly important argument about the very significance of the event itself.    

Aaron Astor is Associate Professor of History at Maryville College in Tennessee, just a few miles from Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  He is author of Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri, 1860-1872 (LSU Press, 2012), which examines the transformation of grassroots black and white politics in the western border states during the Civil War era.  He earned his PhD in History at Northwestern University in 2006 and lives in Maryville with his wife, Samantha, and two children, Henry and Teddy.