Learning to be Free

42 Wolfsburg/Berlin
17 min readNov 11, 2020

Considerations on the 42 Philosophy — Max Senges — November 2020

Banksy, Children with Paradise Landscape, 2005, Bethlehem, Palestine.

“Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Abstract & Introduction

Building on Amartya Sen’s Nobel prize winning “Development as Freedom”, I make the case for our new, truly liberal educational institution — École 42 — where students learn to be free. In 2020, we are finally ready to embrace, build and use a peer-to-peer (e)learning platform that empowers its students to learn what they consider important in life [1].

Knowledge and information are the central resources of the emergent knowledge society. What makes this epoch distinctly different from all predecessors is that there is substantially more equality of opportunity than ever before, because cyberspace potentially empowers each individual to realize an indefinite number of free knowledge opportunities. With the right entrepreneurial mindset, everybody can identify, create and realize the opportunities.

This article develops personal freedom as the central leitmotiv of the 42 pedagogical approach. I propose that the power of freedom - in its internal as well as external sense - is what allows the individual to strive and lead a good life. In this context, the Foucauldian concept of Epimeleia Heautou (to be able to take care of oneself) as well as swaraj (Sanskrit for the liberation from the inner fear that holds people back from realizing their potential) are evoked as two different approaches to developing a mature self that is conscious of the freedom and responsibility that comes with accepting one’s free will. These two abstract teleological concepts are subsequently complemented by other aspects essential to the Supercool learning approach.

In the last section of the text, I make a case for a new post-industrial approach to education. The idea is to show that education has been shaped to fulfill the demand for well-adapted workers in traditional companies and not to create individuals able to create their own work. The bigger part of our current educational practices have been designed during industrialization; hence, they follow the mindset of mechanical efficiency and uniform workers performing standardized tasks. Today’s knowledge workers need a different skill and mindset. They need to be able to collaborate in a team, be creative, flexible and mindful. They need to develop and embrace a sustainable vision of their work and our common future. In my view, 42 is the educational institution which allows for dynamic demand driven, and hence intrinsically motivated learning aimed at endowing the learner to be free and choose the life and work they are passionate about.

Setting the Scene

The freedom to decide upon one’s life is the most fundamental source of motivation and well-being. When Rousseau wrote “Man is everywhere in chains”, what he meant is that most people do not choose their lives. They feel they have no “free will”. They are doomed to struggle for survival and even most of those who have security and food are constrained by the dominant repressive social system to “accept their faith” and play their role rather than explore their dreams and realize the way of life they want.

Evolution continuously tries out new ideas, and — even though we acknowledge that all creativity is built on the past (Lessig, 2004) — we believe that the educational institutions (esp. high school & university) and the educational system as a whole (teaching methods, curricula, grading and certification) are not focused on bringing out the highest potential of the individual student, but stuck in an archaic industrial production of a workforce rather than educating individuals on living a fulfilling life. Not only that: access to education and the whole capitalist system of education fools the masses with illusions like the “American dream” while in reality the reproduction of power happens within elite circles only (Bourdieu 1988).

We believe that by employing the connecting forces of peer learning we will give birth to a new educational movement — one that brings the opportunity to form learning communities and to go through the process from novice to master in the pace and style you want. An institution where you, the individual, decide what to learn and when to learn it. An institution in which learning is enjoyable and social [2].

It is our mission to give positive personal freedom (Berlin, 1969) to the people. The freedom to create, identify and realize learning opportunities on all subjects and levels that will give rise to the entrepreneurial spirit within each of us. It is this entrepreneurial spirit that will have people tackle the vast challenges of our time. It is this entrepreneurial spirit that will creatively deconstruct our current learning practices, measurements and objectives and replace them with a system that is much more social, human, and egalitarian, while at the same time allowing for a degree of productivity and individual liberty never seen before. By exploiting interactive and social media for social learning, we will unlock the true nature of the potential and essence of the knowledge society.

A very brief history of the evolution of learning technology

“Books will soon be obsolete in schools … It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. Our school system will be completely changed in the next ten years”

Thomas Edison (1913)

Technology has always been a fundamental aid for communication and learning, as it allows any literate person to externalize and codify knowledge into information that can be used by learners at distant times and locations. Over several millennia humanity has developed learning technologies based on text, and one can argue that with the invention of the printing press text-based learning fueled a revolution in massification of education never seen before. However, one of the fundamental shortcoming of this revolution was (and still is) that it is based on industrially produced “one size fits all” textbooks. Hence, the single most decisive factor for educational quality is class size, because the information containers have to be individually unpacked and deliberated in order to be transformed into embodied knowledge.

Great forecasts have been made about the impact of technologies, like the radio or television, on our educational system. Both technologies have had their effect on our learning culture, but it was not as groundbreaking as expected, as they merely transposed the traditional (among educators, long overdue) frontal teaching method into a new medium. Nevertheless, one can plausibly claim that television in particular is the most dominant learning technology, except it does not necessarily teach the subjects people want to know about. Furthermore — and this is much worse — the medium’s message (McLuhan, 1964) is not to liberate but to “program” people to comply with the system and be docile happy consumers rather than creators and active learners. Last but not least, TV provides non-social information feeding, promoting individualization and egocentric thinking.

Even more widespread enthusiasm has been spread among cyberphile educators regarding the potential of the Internet to enable the global accessibility and sharing of knowledge. Nevertheless, to date most e-learning institutions have been mere online doppelgängers of their offline equivalents [3]. Research on technology innovation (Bates, 2000), especially media, has shown that when a new technological medium becomes available it is first used to replicate the traditional practices. For example, the first films were recorded stage plays. In a second stage, the new possibilities of the medium are embraced and perfected, but the organization of the institutions stay the same. Thus (sticking with the film industry), while the new computer-animated movies are exploiting all facets of moviemaking, they still follow the traditional institutionalized production and distribution scheme. It is in the third stage when innovations truly unlock their potential to alter culture and the way of life of its users. It is through democratization happening on online video platforms that we exploit the true transformative power of “moviemaking” and develop a “see for yourself” culture of peer production: a way of life where everyone co-creates and shares his/her experiences with the world.

As stated, the educational institutions we find online so far are still rooted in the old industrial paradigm, but we can already observe the new culture of learning. It is the vast multitude of online knowledge sphere (fora, blogs, and places like Wikipedia) that makes up a highly complex adaptive system; the new complex educational ecosystem of the cyber agora (knowledge marketplace) where the distinct economies of knowledge are imminently understood, practiced and developed further by digital natives.

We believe that the time has come for an institution to empower learners to bank with and profit from their entrepreneurial learning ventures. 42 sets out to become the institution where informal learning becomes formalized. We are working to formally codify your learning by collecting information about your interests and level of understanding distilled from you actual creative learning activities and the impression you left with your co-learners. It is our aim to provide this third-generation educational institution — 42 — to empower all learners to team up with peers to realize opportunities to learn exactly what they want to learn and build up a knowledge profile that certifies the learning process.

Hitting the target without aiming

“Therefore the Master acts without doing anything

and teaches without saying anything.

Things arise and she lets them come;

things disappear and she lets them go.”

Tao Te Ching

When the German philosophy professor, Eugen Herrigel, inquired in the early 20th century to learn the teachings of Zen Buddhism, he was politely informed that one cannot learn Zen. One can only learn one of the Zen arts and thereby come to learn to embody Zen. He subsequently learned the art of Zen archery. It took him more than two years of strenuous disciplined practice before he was able to hit his target over 30 meters away without aiming.

We believe that the institution we create has to be as open and diverse as the learners who cavort within. We believe that there are infinite paths to knowledge and attempting to steer them is to constrain and forge new chains. Hence, we believe that good practices will prevail naturally and that it must be our aim to provide an environment for democratic meritocracy.

Freedom as Motivation for Learning

In the following paragraphs, I outline my understanding of positive liberty as the primary leitmotiv for education. I illustrate the essence of freedom as fundamental motivation for education by exploring the meaning of Epimeleia Heautou, the Greek practice of taking care of oneself, and swaraj, the Indian concept of finding inner and external liberation.

While I do not believe that the proposed motivations need to be made explicit in all 42 learning projects and practices, we should promote their essence in everything we do.

Swaraj — To liberate the Power of Self

In the early hours of dawn a man enters a room and, looking in a dark corner, believes he sees a long snake. He escapes from the room in panic. Later, when the sun has lightened the room, he finds that his not-seeing caused him to mistake a coil of rope for a snake.

This old Indian parable illustrates beautifully how knowledge (understanding of the true Being) makes us see better and thereby liberates us from fear.

So it is the unknown, the dark, the void of understanding that causes us to be afraid and either attempt to stop the fear by ending its cause or surrender our so-called faith to someone else who we believe knows better. One is in fear of the unknown — or better that which is not understood — because we cannot prepare for the impact of whatever event it will trigger. However, once we understood its Being we can influence and adopt our behavior.

This freedom of inner clarity and autonomous judgment has been named Swaraj in the Indian tradition. Swaraj is the force Mahatma Gandhi (1934) conceptualized as the spiritual energy source behind the Indian peoples struggle for independence. It is the realization of the importance of knowledge for self-esteem and self-realization that causes the entrepreneurial spirit to attain knowledge opportunities and to develop sagacity.

Epimeleia Heautou — To take care of oneself

Foucault (1983) introduces one of his lectures in Berkeley by recounting a story of the Greek scholar Hermotimus, who has been taught for the last ten years by a great philosopher. The scholar is desperate, because the studies have consumed all his wealth and he still has not learned what he aspires to. What he strives for is to learn to take care of himself (in Greek: Epimeleia Heautou).

Foucault elaborates that one takes care of oneself spiritually and physically, first as an autonomous individual and second as a participant within the division of labor and societal relations of civilization. Two general motivations are analyzed to be fundamental: learning about oneself and the world, as an end in itself. And learning to be able to do something.

What the Greeks called episteme — learning about life and the understanding (making sense) of one’s reality as such — is a recursive perpetual motivation for learning (as self-development). It is this knowledge, described by Lombardo as “understanding the big picture” and “deep learning”, that empowers critical thinking and reflexive capacity, or as Giddens states, in allowing learners to (trans)form themselves into mature interdependent individuals (Harvey & Knight, 1996) and engage in cultural and political discourses as cultural citizens (Delanty, 2001).

The second motivation is aimed at concrete abilities and knowing methods to do something. This knowledge was named techne (as in technique) in ancient Greece. The resulting actions and benefits of techne knowledge is what allows you to physically survive (by generating economic value).

Thoreau (1910) gives us a good impression of how one can provide a (in his eyes) splendid life in almost complete isolation, free from civilization. His account Walden is a great example for a way of life where one is content alone, thereby depicting the self-recognition and self-esteem aspect of taking care of oneself. However, Thoreau depicts a very eremitic perspective and most men will want to learn how to take care of themselves within society; therefore, this is what we spend the following paragraph on.

Three pillars of taking care of oneself within society can be depicted. The first objective is inner freedom, or liberation of the self-applied chains, while the second and third learning motivations aim on external freedom or freedom to master challenges outside one’s self. Three categories of knowledge can be deduced:

(1) personal development — empowering self-realization through loss of fear and development of an inner locus of control;

(2) social and cultural citizenship (Delanty, 2001) — this knowledge allows one to understand and master the complexities of public and private political struggle,

(3) and the last and possibly least important technological citizenship (Delanty, 2001) — the ability to add economic value to society.

The following section discusses the fundamentally dual nature of all these knowledge motivations, described above as practice and understanding.

Ever-changing knowledge — Or why to pursue understanding

“In a fight there can be no flaw” is an old samurai saying illustrating the true believe that, when engaged in a performance, there is not a second to think about what to do next; no time to analyze and reflect. There is no time to understand — only to act.

We believe that all learning involves going from a Janus-like dichotomy of developing understanding and practical experimenting to the harmony of mastering a subject. The essence of true mastery however is fluid and masters understand that all knowledge evolves and morphs by being embodied in the minds of its bearers. This is the WuJi of Chinese philosophy, or Japanese Zen, which is equivalent to the Hegelian concept of essence.

For Hegel, all human agency was divided in two categories. Most of what we perceive and enact is our mere existence; we eat, sleep, wash etc. Existence is the mechanical, profane aspect of our lives. What really matters is understanding the non-perishable ideas that form the basis of the ideals we believe in, because it is these memes that really make up the essence4 or the ultimate reason of the world.

Hence, what seems important when proposing freedom as the motivation for learning is that hereby learning is not about possessing knowledge but about understanding and thereby being able to entrepreneurially select and live one’s essential opportunities. In order words, it is to create and identify the right opportunities for oneself by understanding the essential logic behind their existence, and to be able to realize them by contextualizing them with one’s life as a whole.

I learn what I want to learn

“… the human animal is a learning animal;

we like to learn; we are good at it”

John Holt (1980)

We believe that once education is understood as learning to make life more wonderful (rather than to fulfill expectations, etc.), natural curiosity becomes an all-encompassing intrinsic motivation for self-directed learning. Subsequently, we believe it is the learner who knows best and ought to decide what to learn. Or in Holt’s words: “Since we cannot know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned.” (Holt, 2007)

In this sense, 42 is in line with the de-schooling, unschooling, modern or free school movements.

Why teach for free?

At 42 all learning opportunities are for free. Learner share their knowledge as teachers. What motivates the teachers to dedicate their time and effort? There are two key motivations: It is hardly news that “by teaching we are learning” (stated by Seneca two thousand years ago) but possibly even more relevant as an “incentive” for teaching Martin defined gain in the three higher elements Maslow’s pyramid of needs (3: social love & belonging, 4: esteem & self-confidence, and 5: growth through self-actualization) as being substantially stimulated by teaching as the act of sharing knowledge and coaching learners.

More concretely, like a blogger, the teacher is building up a reputation. Individuals with excellent reputations will be offered opportunities based on the trust created by the multitude of evaluations and enacted knowledge activities.

Qualitative and Discrete Performance Measures

At 42 there are no exams to pass. We believe that what is understood brings one to the next level; hence, progress is reflected through further learning and teaching activities in particular. The peer learners and teachers are encouraged to share their impression of the level of understanding and give social feedback; both meant to be foremost a constructive recommendation for concrete improvements and referrals to additional learning resources. Because 42 collects all sorts of information about the learning efforts, an additional perspective is composed of the landscape of learning activities.

Creating our Future, 42 Style

“The future is not set. There is no fate

but what we make for ourselves.”

The Terminator

We want 42 to become a fertile ground where future generations choose to team up, envision and engineer the knowledge that creates our future, because we believe that it is up to each citizen to decide and create the values and ideals upon which our future is build. Durkheim felt that the great achievement of modernity is “the possibility to dynamically differentiate and elaborate values” (Welsch, 1998). It is in this spirit that we want to close our pamphlet.

Different from the natural laws of the physical world, the perceived life-world (Habermas) of the individual is constructed through their knowledge. It is thus in the hands of knowledge entrepreneurs to creatively deconstruct and recombine existing ideas about social reality in order to foster innovative enriching ways of living . These idea units that make up the building bricks of our culture have been conceptualized as memes. A meme, as originally defined by Richard Dawkins, is “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”.

Hence, what we see is a new kind of learner. One who does not consume knowledge but is used to perceive memes (or information) and then comment, edit and expand it. Thereby engaging with it, making it part of themselves, of their identity, by expressing and defining their relationship with the matter. As Tapscott and Williams put it: “this new generation of prosumers treats the world as a place for creation, not consumption. This new way of learning and interacting means they will treat the world as a stage for their own innovations” (Tapscott & Williams 2006).

This is our motivation at 42: Liberating people from the dogma of consuming knowledge and promote deep “big picture” learning (Lombardo, 2000) that encourages the individual to take responsibility for their life, create their dream and be creative and pragmatic in pursuing it.

Living and learning the 42 style means creative learning that empowers individuals to know more about themselves, how to relate to others, and how to make a living.

Living and learning the 42 style means pursuing positive personal liberty and entrepreneurially embracing life’s journey as a series of learning opportunities.


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1 As long as they find peers to team up with. For subjects that cannot be taught via a computer 42 will provide the possibility to meet up with peers offline.

2 By social we mean that it depends on you to co-create a team of learners interested in the same subject or to enter and learn with an existing group.

3 The current players have made only limited attempts to empower learners to use the Internet to become conscious participants and contributors of the noossphere.

4 In Hegel’s terms the holy essence.



42 Wolfsburg/Berlin

42 is an innovative, higher education software engineering school, sponsored by Volkswagen