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When Tradition Goes Wrong: A Reimagination of the Years 18 to 23

On September 28, 2019, Paul Magder, who owned a fur store and a fought a battle against the forced closure of businesses on Sundays in Ontario for decades, died. Upon his death, Magder´s sons reported that their father paid a heavy price for his advocacy and acts of civil disobedience by refusing to close his store on Sundays and that all the fines he had accrued over the years eventually pushed him into bankruptcy.

Magder´s life and the issue of Sunday shopping is interesting to recall because it is largely forgotten and almost impossible for people of a certain age to even fathom. In recent history, the Ontario government forced businesses to close on Sundays and whether to allow stores to open on this blessed day was a topic of real controversy. The Lord´s Day Act, the federal act that mandated closure, was struck down as unconstitutional in 1985 in R v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd., [1985] 1 S.C.R. 295. What even fewer people recall is that the federal law was replaced by a provincial law, the Retail Business Holidays Act, which mandated the closure of businesses on Sundays and was not repealed until Bob Rae and the NDP repealed it in 1992. As Justice Dickson famously said in Big M, the true purpose of the Lord´s Day Act  was to “compel observance of the Christian sabbath.” The Lord´s Day Act  was passed in 1905 when the country was far more Christian both in terms of the percentage of the population who were Christian and the percentage of the population who observed the Christian faith. By 1992, the circumstances were radically different. How can it be that it took decades for the law to catch up to the circumstances and the compulsion to observe the Christian sabbath in Ontario to end?

There is a very simple, one-word answer to this question that anybody who has ever seen Fiddler on the Roof immediately knows – TRADITION!

Tradition has an incredible and powerful hold on human brains. I know about this powerful hold intimately. When my son was 8 days old, I had him circumcised in a ritual ceremony. I did not do this because I think a Creator mandated me to, I did it because the tradition has been burned into my psyche so deeply that it would horrify me if I did not observe it. The tradition removes the need for any intellectual justification because your brain cannot imagine any alternative to what has always been done.

As much as I get the importance of tradition, I have realized over the years that the powerful hold that tradition has on human brains can go wrong. It is my contention that there are many problems in society today that have their origin in the fact that traditions have remained the same while circumstances have changed radically. There is one in particular that I have always taken an interest in and that I am most concerned about – the tradition of attending four years of university and getting an undergraduate degree after high school. I have previously written about how the problems that law students face have their origin in this anachronistic tradition, rather than the debt from law school tuition or the competitiveness of the job market for lawyers upon graduation, but the problems caused by a four-year degree are much more universal.

The world has changed radically in the past generation, especially in terms of technology and the cost of university. Today, the accessibility of technology and resources like Shopify have meant that the cost of starting a business has gone down exponentially while the cost of education has gone up exponentially. Yet these changes in circumstances have had a minimal effect on the number of people who create businesses or try something new in their undergraduate years and the number who get a four-year degree. In fact, the number of people in Canada who get a four-year degree continues to rise at the same time as the awareness of potential employers that the undergraduate degree does nothing whatsoever to distinguish one candidate from another. The only thing that explains this set of circumstances is the powerful hold of tradition.

This would be much less of a problem if this strange set of circumstances were not causing harm. There are so many young people I speak to today who are both unhappy and feel a kind of anxiety that they have difficulty understanding. It is my view that their unhappiness is rooted in the dissonance between what they are told about their undergraduate degree and their circumstances upon their graduation when they realize that virtually no one who can employ them cares about their undergraduate degree and that they have not been taught anything that is useful in the sense that it helps them make a living. At the same time, all of their creative ideas have been stifled by the system of funneling all high school students towards an undergraduate degree. By the time students graduate further into their twenties with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, most feel constricted in their ability to try something new or do anything other than pursue the traditional path of getting a job and working for someone else so they can pay off their debt.

There is an alternative to the traditional system that deserves a chance to emerge in a post Covid-19 world. It occurred to me when I first got into law school and realized, at least at that time, that the law schools did not care what students studied for their undergraduate degree. For the purpose of admission, it did not matter whether you studied math, biology, business, political science, philosophy, psychology, fine arts or music and society, so long as your grades and your LSAT were above a certain level. If this is the case, I thought, then why not take this system to its logical conclusion and instead of telling students when they are 18 that they must  study four years of courses towards an undergraduate degree, tell students who have the intellect to gain admission to university that there is a wide world that is meant to be explored and that they can pursue whatever they want over the next four years and come out with the same largely meaningless piece of paper. If they have an idea for a business, they can pursue it. If they wish to write a book or start a blog, they can pursue it. If they want to live in a foreign country and learn a language while working, they can pursue it. If they want to shadow criminal lawyers and watch court proceedings while writing thoughtful essays about the criminal justice system, they can pursue it. Students who do not want to take on huge levels of debt under this system could propose to work for someone else or do national service under the guidance of a professor, which would substantially reduce their university fees. The possibilities if this system were adopted are endless, as is the potential for unleashing the creative potential of students.

It is the stifling of what is possible in the year 2020 that is causing the most harm of all. The harm of the tradition of a four-year degree is becoming more pronounced with each passing year as the costs of education go up and the costs of pursuing a creative idea and turning it into a business goes down.

There is one thing I know now that I did not when I was 18 that I wish someone had told me: there are two things that coincide during your undergraduate years that will likely never coincide again and which are a huge advantage in the marketplace – a large degree of independence and virtually no responsibilities. You can try new things and fail with virtually no consequences. This changes as you get older and your responsibilities increase. These circumstances coalescing in the era where technology is accessible to everyone and ideas can be pursued cheaply create a remarkable opportunity that is waiting to be seized. It is only the shackles of tradition that prevent students from seizing it and realizing their creative potential.

It took most of the century to get rid of the ridiculous practice of forcing business owners like Paul Magder to close his store on Sundays. The Covid-19 pandemic has given everyone an opportunity to take a step back and think and reimagine. University students are sitting at home, in debt with their lives in limbo. The solution to their problem is not to do what has always been done and make them take more courses and force them into more debt, it is to widen and broaden what can be done towards an undergraduate degree. For their sake and the sake of the new cohort of university students, the first thing that should be done upon the reopening of universities is to completely reimagine what can be done during the years 18 to 23.




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