“WHY, William, on that old grey stone,
Thus for the length of half a day,
Why, William, sit you thus alone,
And dream your time away?
“Where are your books?–that light bequeathed
To Beings else forlorn and blind!
Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed
From dead men to their kind.
“You look round on your Mother Earth,
As if she for no purpose bore you;
As if you were her first-born birth,
And none had lived before you!”
One morning thus, by Esthwaite lake,
When life was sweet, I knew not why,
To me my good friend Matthew spake,
And thus I made reply:
“The eye–it cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where’er they be,
Against or with our will.
“Nor less I deem that there are Powers
Which of themselves our minds impress;
That we can feed this mind of ours
In a wise passiveness.
“Think you, ‘mid all this mighty sum
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?
“–Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,
Conversing as I may,
I sit upon this old grey stone,
And dream my time away,”
So reads William Wordsworth’s poem, Expostulation and Reply, which he penned in 1798. These are the words that Charlotte Mason was remembering as she wrote in her third volume School Education about “masterly inactivity”, a term she coined based on Wordsworth’s image of “wise passiveness”.
“Masterly Inactivity” – what does this mean? Who is the master and who is inactive? What does “masterly” mean?
I’m no expert but I have read and discussed much of CM’s writings with other home-educators and classroom teachers and I would like to tell you about my understanding and execution of masterly inactivity, an understanding that applies whether you are teaching your own at home or teaching in a classroom. Masterly inactivity can be easily misunderstood because it seems to say that we should allow our children to do anything, to step back and let them “at it”, to unschool.
This is not at all what CM was saying, especially when you look at the word “masterly”, or indeed, especially when you look at Wordsworth’s phrase “wise passiveness”. CM was saying that masterly inactivity must be done in an orderly way, in an attempt to give measured freedom, to allow our students to grow and learn through spontaneous experimentation that is child-led.
It indicates the power to act, the desire to act, and the insight and self-restraint which forbid action. (pg 28)
As children mature, we give them little freedoms – the chance to walk (and fall) on their own, to feed themselves after showing them how to use a spoon, to read books they find of interest (ensuring that these are not twaddle, of course). At a certain point in every child’s development, they must be given freedom.
Does this mean CM meant for the children to be the masters of their own destiny, to be completely free to choose what they want to do, when they want to do it? This is somewhat correct, but not completely; and certainly not until they are ready for this freedom. People should be given freedom commensurate with their maturity and their understanding that there is an authority above them (whether it’s a teacher for a student or God for an adult). CM suggested that children must first be trained in the habit of a “sense of authority”, with an understanding that an adult is in charge; the authority figure is the master. She wrote:
The sense of authority is the sine quâ non of the parental relationship, and I am not sure that without that our activities or our inactivity will produce any great results. (pg 28)
We, as the master, give the student the tools to “get the job done” through activities like strewing books around that may pique the child’s interest, by having the craft resources available for completing an assignment, by assisting without directing. The important aspect of masterly inactivity is the allowing the children to ferret out the best way to accomplish the stated goal with a sense of freedom, but always remembering that the adult is there in the background. As the student grows in maturity, of course, this freedom is increased accordingly. The student must have the sense that
He is free to do as he ought, but knows quite well in his secret heart that he is not free to do that which he ought not. (pg 32)
This sense of not doing “that which he ought not” is a concept that is missing today. With slogans like “if it feels good, do it”, is it any wonder that our students are conflicted? CM’s idea of masterly inactivity will only work if the student understands the sense of authority, if she understands that this is a great responsibility to be given freedom to accomplish a goal.
As far as the inactivity – this is far from meaning that the teacher steps back and does nothing. Instead this “inactivity” actually means that it appears, it seems as if, the teacher is ignoring the student; but in fact, the teacher is watchful without interfering, alert without seeming to be, ensuring that the task at hand is actively being accomplished. As CM describes, “This open-eyed attitude must be sphinx-like in its repose.”
There is no inactivity on the student’s part either; the authority’s presence ensures that the student works toward the stated goal, not dawdling or daydreaming but thinking and working out the solution to getting the job done.
So how does masterly inactivity look in a real situation? I teach 3rd, 6th and 7th graders in my home school. When studying the founding of Jamestown, I gave them each the goal of explaining the tenacity of the first settlers. They had a week to complete such a project. My third grader spent the week creating a replica of the James Fort that includes the Powhatan Village nearby. My 6th grader wrote up a story about a ship’s boy aboard the Susan Constant, relating all the horrors and fears of the 144 day voyage. My 7th grader, working with internet resources, developed a Power-Point presentation to show to Dad that included all the statistics of the journey and the first year of living in the Virginian colony. By creating these projects on their own, using the tools and supplies they needed (which I supplied through strewing and time on the computer, etc) to get the job accomplished, they have a better sense of the colonists’ troubles from the rigors of the voyage to acclimating to their new surroundings. They own the knowledge because they have “lived” it.
This is wise passiveness at its finest:
- masterly – I gave them a set goal and when it should be completed; I gave them the resources needed to accomplish the project; I helped them find images on the internet, showed them where to browse in the history section of the library; and I gave them a reasonable time period to get the job done
- inactivity – I didn’t tell them how to accomplish the goal of explaining the Jamestown. I gave them the freedom to choose their own project while giving them parameters of a deadline (further they know the level of work they should do).
They are free under authority which is liberty; to be free without authority is license.”(Vol. 3, p. 31)
So our students need freedom under authority. We as the teacher need wisdom and self-restraint; we need to have confidence as the teacher and confidence in our students to get the job done.
But in a home setting, we have it a little easier than a classroom teacher. We know how much each of our children can handle, how much liberty we can grant while still ensuring the “must” behind it. We can develop this habit gradually over time, increasing the liberty as our child matures. We have that relationship base.
In a classroom setting it is doable but a bit harder – the relationship of authority must be developed and nurtured. Each student is at a different place in his maturity, in his ability to cope with the freedom to “do what he ought … not free to do that which he ought not.” As CM says: education is an atmosphere. So our classrooms need to be steeped in an atmosphere of dignity for and from each person, a sense of confidence in the leader and the led. The classroom needs to nurture each individual while working with the whole. This is not an easy task but can be accomplished with help from the home front; with the understanding of who is in charge and what needs to happen.
Authority, good humor, confidence, the “serenity of a Madonna”, leisure and faith are all components necessary to successful masterly inactivity. But it’s doable, and as I’ve shown above, it works! The results can be measured by the ownership of the knowledge attained!
© 2011 Mary C. Gildersleeve
Mary Gildersleeve is a hand-knits designer, free lance writer and homeschool teacher living in a small rural county about an hour south-west of Washington, D.C. She earned an MBA from the College of William and Mary (Williamsburg, VA) and a BA in Print Journalism from Gonzaga University (Spokane, Washington). She has two published books: Great Yarns for the Close Knit Family: over two dozen original hand-knit designs inspired by a dozen fantastic family read-alouds and In His Image: Nurturing Creativity in the Heart of Your Home. She is married, has 5 children (9 to 22 yrs) and keeps busy homeschooling her younger three children, working on the computer, writing articles, and knitting…knitting…knitting . For more information, her website is www.marygildersleeve.com