Mark Franke: Air conditioning: The cause of all our woes


I have finally figured out the root cause of all our woes — air conditioning.

I am deadly serious about this. Consider just two travesties wreaking havoc across our landscape.

First, school start dates. My teacher neighbor started the first full week of August, and her school was not alone. The school where I volunteer won’t start until Aug. 16, but they are an outlier, not that even a mid-August start date is defensible.

I’m no scientist, but I believe early August is smack in the middle of summer as our calendar informs us.

There was a time in my hometown of Fort Wayne when schools couldn’t start well before Labor Day due to the simple fact that the largest employers, the heavy industries on the east end, did their shutdowns in August. That’s when family vacations occurred.

We had the same issue at the university where I spent my career. Summer classes needed to end by July 31 or thereabouts so that the professional schools, such as business and engineering, could accommodate these students and their family vacation schedules. The exception to this were the graduate classes in the school of education, whose full-time teachers had most of August available but couldn’t start in late May. They still can’t start in late May, but neither can they go deep into August.

Without air conditioning, which we did not have in my school days, no one would have seriously considered beginning school in early August. Football players had to report on Aug. 15, but the rest of us stayed on vacation or made several weeks’ more income from our summer jobs.

The politics of education need not be recounted here. Suffice it to say that the school districts seemed to incrementally shorten the school days and find a myriad of reasons to cancel days. I still don’t know what an “in-service” day is. Eventually, the General Assembly stepped in and decreed a 180-day year with makeups required. As in all legislation we bear, it resulted from political pressure by voting groups as national test scores frog marched in the wrong direction. I’ve oversimplified this, but you get the point.

A friend, a retired elementary school principal, told me when the 180-day law took effect that schools could offer the same amount of instructional time on a Labor Day to Memorial Day calendar if they simply returned to the previous longer school day. My recollection is of an 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. school day. The nearby elementary school system’s day is about three-quarters of an hour shorter, which adds up over nine months.

If I were arbiter of the universe, I would make an even trade of those daily minutes for a two-week extension to summer.

My second point to introduce into evidence is the perniciously pervasive operation of the federal government. Does anyone seriously thinkpoliticians and bureaucrats would hang out in Washington, D.C., in July and August if it weren’t for air conditioning?

I won’t be granted a Ph.D. in political science for this analysis, but I have concluded that much of the assault on liberties would not have happened if Washington shut down for the summer as it used to. Sure, there are those with advanced degrees who will point to the post-Civil War period or the New Deal or the Great Society as the tipping point when the federal government grew exponentially. Maybe, but then wasn’t air conditioning becoming standard in governmental buildings during the Great Society years?

President John Adams went home to Braintree during the summers and handled any communication needs by postal service. The Republic survived.

The early Congresses met from December to March and then went home to carry on with productive lives. The Indiana General Assembly still, theoretically at least, is a part-time legislature with constitutional constraints on how long they can meet. Surely it is no coincidence Indiana has fewer government intrusions into our private lives … and pocketbooks … than many other states.

One can only dream about a Washington with plugs pulled on the A/C generators. No feverish regulation writing, no interminable committee hearings, no inane press conferences. After all, even today’s press is too smart to stand out in the D.C. heat to grab a 30-second sound bite from some attention-starved congressman or senator.

Progress is not always beneficial. There is a John Lennon song that contains a line that fits me here: “You can say I’m a dreamer,” and then he adds, “but I’m not the only one.” Unfortunately for us dreamers, no complacent 21st century American would give up air conditioning just to get a longer summer or more liberty.

Marx was wrong. It is air conditioning that is the opium of the masses.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Send comments to [email protected].

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