by Michele Quigley
We are a society that hovers and [over] schedules our children. To be honest, I have never been much of a hoverer. Lest you think I am wise and virtuous, let me tell you that I am more likely lazy and hovering has always felt like too much work to me.
Perhaps that is part of what drew me towards Charlotte Mason’s method in the first place. It’s a provocative idea isn’t it? “Whereby teachers shall teach less and scholars shall learn more.” Charlotte Mason called it Masterly Inactivity and I have come to realize this “letting alone” is one of the keys to making this method work.
Often when people talk about “masterly inactivity” they refer to the children. “Let them play, let them do the things they want. Don’t butt in even if it doesn’t look like they aren’t learning.” But is that what Charlotte Mason meant? Is CM unschooling? No. While there are many who unschool in a CM sort of way –and they are certainly free to do that– Charlotte Mason herself developed a very specific and fairly rigorous curriculum for her schools and home study families. When she talks about “masterly inactivity” she is talking about the teachers and parents, not so much the students.
You see, it is the teacher who is the master, the authority. She is the one who plans, guides, directs and protects but then also the one who must get out of the way and let things happen. This is why Charlotte Mason urges that the best books and resources be presented to the child, so that the authors can speak for themselves and so that children can make their own connections. Teachers teach less and the children learn more because they, the children, are doing the work. They become responsible for their own education.
Don’t be fooled, this isn’t a matter of doing nothing. There is much the teacher must do and her role is indispensable. Masterly inactivity is about freedom under authority and freedom under authority is liberty. It is respecting the child as a person. It is trusting God, ourselves and our children. It is recognizing that children, while younger and less experienced, are still fully persons who think , analyze, compare and judge just as grown ups do.
Charlotte Mason wrote that education is an “atmosphere, a discipline and a life” and indeed they are. The teacher sets the atmosphere by providing excellent resources and materials. By providing space to work and a calm atmosphere. The discipline of habit means that life, like it or not, runs on set timetables. Lessons are done in a timely manner and habits of discipline are taught and followed. But there is a measure of trust that the child is given and the urge we have be sure that they have grasped everything from the lesson has to be quelled. Even with narrations because while narration gives us clues to what the child is comprehending we also have to understand that they aren’t going to remember of comprehend every detail and that’s OK. It’s OK because it’s likely to come around again in some other form and because, as CM said, seeds are planted and things germinate.
I have personally found that oftentimes what doesn’t come up in a narration is an idea that the child did get but didn’t really place much importance on until later when the germinating began and he saw a connection with something else. We have to remember that what strikes us is shaped by our wider experience but what the child thinks is important is shaped by his limited experience. However it does get in there and given a wide array of really good books and resources he will make those connections on his own. We don’t need to make them for him, we simply need to invite him to make his own.
Like most of Charlotte Mason’s ideas there are many layers to masterly inactivity and what I have written here is really only a small part of the bigger picture. There is certainly more to be explored on the topic but for now I’ll leave you with a quote from Miss Mason herself:
“Parents should trust themselves more. Everything is not done by restless endeavour. The mere blessed fact of the parental relationship and of that authority which belongs to it, by right and by nature, acts upon the children as do sunshine and shower on a seed in good soil. But the fussy parent, the anxious parent, the parent who explains overmuch, who commands overmuch, who excuses overmuch, who restrains overmuch, who interferes overmuch, even the parent who is with the children overmuch, does away with dignity and simplicity of that relationship which, like all the best and most delicate things in life, suffer by being asserted or defended.”