Practical Application
Comments 2

Detachment? Disinterest? by Melanie Walker

I am a passionate person by nature.  I am prone to speak quickly and I wonder if, at times, I am plagued by some form of Tourette’s Syndrome.  While this part of me has been useful in my commitment to the ideas of Mason, in starting a school, and in speaking about our shaping philosophy, I am finding that my passion is often as much vice as virtue.  Passion can run contrary to the habit that monastics referred to as “detachment.”  Charlotte Mason named it a healthy “disinterest.”

Essex Cholmondley writes that “Miss Mason is concerned with the conduct of life showing that the opinions and principles that are gathered as life goes on should be a natural living growth out of the wide knowledge collected during the school years.” (The Story of Charlotte Mason, p 118) I believe she is promoting the idea that children want to be free, and will, if given a healthy atmosphere, form their own ideas and opinions.   These ideas and responses may differ from the teachers.

Sometimes, the personality, passion, and opinions of a teacher become impediments to this freedom.  The teacher, though well intentioned, can insert him or her self between a child and true learning.  This can short circuit a child’s relationship with the rich material that is set before him.  “Obedience is careful listening to truth, not subjection to authority…(and we would add, subjection to a teacher’s point of view).” (Parker Palmer, Knowing as We are Known).  While a teacher lays the broad feast before the children, “disinterest” allows her to step back and allow the student to engage the material without impediment.

Recently in my third/fourth grade class our math mentor was leading a talk and asking the children for possible solutions to an addition problem.  During the process a child raised his hand and said he would like to change his answer.  The teacher praised the children for creating an atmosphere where the child felt free to change his mind.   Often in classroom settings it is the quick “right” answer that is appreciated.  Knowledge of the answer ahead of time is more valued than the child’s engagement in finding ways to figure an answer out.

We loved this thought found in Eleanor Duckworth’s The Having of Wonderful Ideas: The virtues involved in not knowing something are the ones that count in the long run.  What you do with what you don’t know is, in the final analysis, what will determine what you do know (“The Virtues of not Knowing”).  What a thought, that not knowing could actually create a hunger to know.  Quick answers and strong opinions can easily stifle this hunger in a child.

Several ideas have helped our teachers in cultivating the habit of disinterest:

Children bring a humility, openness and hunger to school.  Frederick Buechner quoted the headmaster of a school as saying to his new teachers, “Never forget when you enter your classrooms tomorrow you will frequently find yourself in the presence of your intellectual superiors.”  They are as passionate as we are, and will show this if given the chance.

Narration is more than just training in attention.  When criticized that her methods were “nothing new”, she responded, “Yes, everyone has known always that children should read good books and should ‘reproduce’ in one form or another. I believe that our (open) secret lies deeper.  When one hears a child do what one could not do oneself after the same amount of preparation one suspects ‘more things’” (The Story of Charlotte Mason, p 137,138)  Mason believed that something would happen as a person, child or adult, narrates a rich passage.  “The teachers as well as the children develop amazingly,” she said.  We believe that truth has its own voice, and that voice calls out through living books.  Truth speaks to us all.  It quiets a person, young or old, when they realize that a story holds something for them.

The church year sets our pace and rhythm.  The seasons and calendar are teaching us that the best ideas keep circling back around.  All Saints is our relationship to everyone and every time.  Advent is waiting.  Christmas is gift.  Epiphany is light.  Lent is dark.  Easter is hope.  Pentecost is vocation and power.  This helps us not to panic that a student isn’t “getting it”.  Just as Mason called her philosophy a “sane view of education”, we believe that the church year gives us a “sane view” of spiritual formation.  The rhythm of the liturgical year has brought healing as well as training to those whose Christian experience has been rigid, uncreative or arid.

Seemingly negative traits – disinterest?  Detachment?  But fruitful ones after all.  Tell me, dear reader what are you thinking?  Do these ideas resonate with your experience/thought?

© 2010 Melanie Walker

This entry was posted in: Practical Application


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. willowspring says

    Melanie, my 18-year-old daughter is taking a course called The History of Philosophy, and she came to me the other day to tell me she wants to be a philosopher. She’s interested, not merely in studying the great philosophers of old, but in coming up with new ideas, new philosophies, and perhaps leaving ideas for posterity that are fresh and new and being remembered as a philosopher. I believe this desire to not only understand philosophy and learn about Plato, Socrates, Augustine, and Descartes, but to come up with ideas of her own is fresh out of her 12 years of Mason education. Yes! Come up with your own rich, new ideas! The solid base beneath you left there by great heroes of old and a rich Mason-styled education will undergird but can also be built on.

    I don’t know how good a job I did in getting out of the way, but at a certain point we all ARE out of the way. As they finish up their education with us and head off to college and a life of their own choosing, they are free to explore further. Furthering that hunger to learn is sometimes best done by backing away, I think. And sometimes they grow interested in things we never would expect, just by walking through these impressionable years and connecting with an author, inventor, or even a philosopher. You just never know!


  2. When I see a 6 year old have such insight (during narration), I do believe you and Charlotte Mason are right about this. It is too long to describe the conclusion he made from the text but all I said was “they were poor” and he put it all together. I did not need to lecture him or spell it out for him. He came to a slightly different conclusion than I did but I liked his better.

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