PARIS – Imagine you’re a high school dropout. You have no money, no skills, no work experience, no family fortune. What could save you from becoming one of society’s bottom feeders for the rest of your life?
The answer is education.
Ideally, this would be a Bernie Sanders’ style tuition-free college education. Even better if the school could prepare you to become a skilled professional, ready to survive and possibly lead, in the fast-changing high-tech world.
Meet your headmaster: Xavier Niel, often called the French Steve Jobs. Dressed in a white shirt and blue jeans, Niel is a mild-looking Internet mogul who has built a career and fortune mostly by breaking rules in a rigid French society and bucking the establishment.
This week, Niel opened the door to his coding school, called 42, for the foreign media. He established 42 in 2013 in Paris, along with associates who include Nicolas Sadirac, former general director of the French IT school Epitech. Today, Sadirac runs and operates 42.
42 teaches its students skills – both social and technical – in software development. Using no textbooks or traditional curriculum, 42 focuses on “peer-to-peer learning,” “gamification,” and teaching student s to “use knowledge without memorizing,” Sadirac explained.
The school is unorthodox -- to say the least -- in every respect, and by any standard in the world.
It’s open to everyone. Even students with no high school diplomas or those who failed in traditional educational systems are welcome to apply.
Once accepted after a rigorous 4-week “on-site” test called “Piscine” (swimming pool), the survivors get an education – and a degree in three years -- absolutely free of charge. In 2015, 42 received applications from 80,000 people and accepted 1,000 students.
By the time students achieve Level 21 – the highest level of skills– at School 42, they “would have learned to work in Linux, develop artificial intelligence, or immersed in graphics to design augmented reality or virtual realtiy -- depending on programs you chose,” said Sadirac.
Street smarts needed
More important, as 42 tends to prefer students with street smarts and whose attitude and thinking are more flexible, the school is ready to train them to work around superficial problems to solve real problems, and collaborate with others in a project. It’s not unusual for the school to cut off power – abruptly – so that students working in rooms -- connected with more than one thousand top-of-the-line iMac computers -- must figure out on their own how to cope in the worst of real-world situations. Students work in groups, but have to organize a group on their own.
The 4-week on-site “piscine,” perhaps, best illustrates what 42 is about.