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    At School with Charlotte: Masterly Inactivity and Classicism’s Wry Smile

    July 26, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    [Masterly inactivity] indicates the power to act, the desire to act, and the insight and self-restraint which forbid action.

    Charlotte Mason

    The phrase “masterly inactivity” is thrown around Charlotte Mason circles, and I have spent years not knowing what it meant! It is quite the relief to feel enlightened after wandering in the dark for some time. To begin with, I now know that masterly inactivity is something performed by — or, more accurately, a quality belonging to — the mother of the children. For some reason I had always thought it was a quality of the children. See what I mean by in the dark?

    A discussion of Charlotte Mason's chapter on masterly inactivity and how this relates to oaken doors and Socrates.

    Totally clueless.

    Okay, so what is masterly inactivity, exactly? Well, Charlotte tells us she caught the phrase from Thomas Carlyle, who, in 1881, utilized it in a single volume of Fraser’s magazine three times, the first in an essay entitled Alone in College, and what came of it:

    Meanwhile I was labouring at the door with much energy, although wholly misdirected. My rooms were on the upper floor, so that the door was our only chance; but it was of tough wood and opened inwards, opposing to all aggression a policy of masterly inactivity: I had no tools, and neither kicks nor blows made the smallest impression upon it.

    Perhaps Charlotte thought it might be helpful if mothers were more like that door, immovable and unimpressed. There are two other instances of the use of this phrase, but neither so vivid as this of the oaken door, standing strong in the face of conflict.

    This picture of the fully mature, immovable (yet gracious, we discover) mother or headmistress or schoolmaster or what-have-you, shares qualities with that teacher who, we learned in Volume 1, is willing to be quiet and wait for her students to think and subsequently wonder and ask questions, rather than telling them things they haven’t yet wondered about. And David Hicks echoed Charlotte when he declared that

    Only the careless and unskilled teacher answers questions before they are asked. The teacher’s chief task is to provoke the question, not to answer it; to cultivate in his students an active curiosity, not to inundate them in factual information.

    Of course both Charlotte and Socrates believed that it was appropriate to turn the situation around, with the teacher asking questions of the students. Charlotte, for instance, said:

    The child must think, get at the reason why of things for himself, every day of his life, and more each day than the day before. Children and parents both are given to invert this educational process. The child asks ‘Why?’ and the parent answers, rather proud of this evidence of thought in his child. There is some slight show of speculation even in wondering ‘Why?’ but it is the slightest and most superficial effort the thinking brain produces. Let the parent ask ‘Why?’ and the child produce the answer, if he can. After he has turned the matter over and over in his mind, there is no harm in telling him — and he will remember it — the reason why.

    Likewise, David Hicks wrote of Socrates:

    He constantly reminded his students that he was not interested in proving them right or wrong or in showing himself right. Rather, he asked them simply to have patience with his “stupid questions” and to pursue their own “brilliant answers” to their logical conclusions in thought and action. His humble manner and gentle coaxing painted on the face of classical education, a wry smile that has never left it. The classical schoolmaster is still a gadfly, clothed in humor, because his task cuts across the human grain; he embraces this task knowing that only men and women who want to know the truth more than to be proven right will accept dialectical challenges and not regard reason with suspicion and fear.

    I add this in because that classical schoolmaster, smiling knowingly at his students, is the exact posture to which Charlotte is referring. It is a picture we can keep in our minds as we study this strange concept of “masterly inactivity” — Socrates, unhurried and confident, completely in control of his class, remaining silent when appropriate, asking questions when appropriate, knowing not just what to do, but knowing the wisdom of waiting patiently. He was, at times, masterly inactive.

    Understanding the Times

    Like all of us, Charlotte was a product of the time in which she lived. She begins her chapter on this subject by explaining the way things are upon the date of her writing. First of all, she tells us that the previous generation engaged in a high level of self-responsibility. They took ownership for what they were like, how they conducted themselves, and their own moral behavior. At the time Charlotte was writing, people had begun to take themselves a little less seriously, accepting some of their own faults with good humor. But there was still a weight being carried, she tells us:

    The sense of responsibility still rests upon us with a weight ‘heavy as frost’; we have only shifted it to the other shoulder. The more serious of us are quite worn with the sense of what we owe to those about us, near and far off.

    Charlotte even attributed a recent (at the time) updated Bible translation to this sense of responsibility which bred a generalized anxiety. The King James Version had translated Philippians 4:6 as:

    Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.

    Careful, here, means full of care in a more general sense than we use it today. The Revised Version, though, had removed the phrase “be careful for nothing” and replaced it with “be not anxious for your life.” Charlotte says this is a sign of the times. The people felt responsible for everyone and everything about them — for the sick, the poor, the suffering, and so on. Even more so, then, was the feeling of responsibility towards one’s own family:

    People feel that they can bring up their children to be something more than themselves, and that they ought to do so, and that they must; and it is to this keen sense of higher parental duty that the Parents’ Union owes its successful activity.

    The problem with this rather optimistic transition was that it expressed itself in anxiety and worry. Again, I can’t help but think that Charlotte has rather a lot to say to us today, for are we not full of hand-wringing over everything from what the children are eating, to whether they are behind in their developmental progress, to whether we are giving them all we might or ought within our own domestic schools?

    I don’t know about you, but I need Charlotte’s message. I need to take a deep breath, and not worry so very much. I need to be anxious for nothing. This is a tall order, especially considering that

    [W]e ought to do so much for our children, and are able to do so much for them, that we being to think everything rests with us and that we should never intermit for a moment our conscious action on the young minds and hearts about us.

    In what behaviors does this worry display itself?

    Our endeavors become fussy and restless. We are too much with our children, ‘late and soon.’ We try to dominate them too much, even when we fail to govern, and we are unable to perceive that wise and purposeful letting alone is the best part of education.

    This reminded me of a hot day on which I gave my one-year-old his first cup of ice water. My mother and I actually discussed whether or not to help him, but in the end we found that the quickest road was through failure. The day was hot, the water cold and shocking to tender skin, and one false move was all it took to train him in drinking with care.

    The point, of course, is not letting alone, but that proper sort of letting alone which is wise and purposeful. Otherwise, we are simply negligent.

    What Does Masterly Inactivity Look Like?

    Charlotte, as usual, gives us a nice long list with which to flesh out this ideal, to identify what it is … and also what it isn’t.

    • Coupled with Authority: If you recall, this volume begins with authority for a reason. Charlotte is going to keep coming back to authority as her cornerstone. Here she writes:

      The mastery is not over ourselves, only; there is also a sense of authority, which our children should be as much aware of when it is inactive as when they are doing our bidding.

      The children rest in the parent’s authority (if it be proper) because, just like God’s authority, it makes them free:

      They are free under authority, which is liberty; to be free without authority is license.

    • Good Humor: This masterly inactivity — this self-possession, if you will — requires a certain attitude.

      … frank, cordial, natural, good humour. This is quite a different thing from overmuch complacency, and a general giving-in to all the children’s whims.

      Good humor, according to Charlotte, requires that we know when to say “no” and when to say “yes” — when, for instance, to give the children the day off from their studies. Bedtime was holy and set apart in the 1800s, but today, those of us who maintain a strict bedtime might include knowing when to let them stay up reading (or being read to) as another example. All of the qualities of masterly inactivity, including good humor, are nuanced and subtle:

      The masterly ‘yes’ and the abject ‘yes’ are quite different notes.

    • Self-Confidence: Charlotte says we should trust ourselves more, be confident in our position as parents, in our relationship with our children, and so on. She contrasts self-confidence here with that anxiety which she mentioned at the start of the chapter. The anxious parent is revealing their insecurity.

      [T]he 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 the dignity and simplicity of that relationship …

      If there is anything modern life drives us to be, it is fussy. We parents are supposed to protect our children from every little bump and bruise, keep them away from strangers (because they might be pedophiles, right?), make sure they don’t climb too high or jump too far, keep them away from traffic, and so on. If your child has food allergies, you also know what it is like to become the Food Police, compulsively reading labels, shying away from shared meals where someone else prepared the food. Some of the dangers are real. Some are not. Regardless, the fear and overactive sense of responsibility make us anxious (and pushes out a sense of God’s sovereignty, I might add) Charlotte urges us to turn off the Smother Mother and rest. After all, God built our houses, and He can sustain them, too.

    • Keeping it to Ourselves: When we are worrying about something (and we will!), we are not to share it, especially during the time we are struggling with it. It is one thing to share a solution (you have a bad habit, and we are going fix it by doing x, etc.), it is quite another to invite the children into the struggle, sayeth Charlotte, who gives the example of a child of ten worrying that she is “behind” other children her age. Such things are

      displeasing, because one feels instinctively that the child is occupied with cares which belong to the parent only. The burden of their children’s training must be borne by the parents alone. But let them bear it with easy grace and an erect carriage …

    • Confidence in the Children: Expect them to obey; trust that they will do so. Worrying about the possibility of disobedience is not masterly inactivity.
    • Be Omniscient: This is an art! And what a lovely one. We must always know what they are about without using the heavy hand of force. All of this must, again, be subtle.

      [S]he must see without watching, know without telling, be on the alert always, yet never obviously, fussily, so. This open-eyed attitude must be sphinx-like in its repose.

      Because the mother knows, the child’s desire to do good is reinforced. But because mother is not there, literally watching his every move, his own character flowers, its muscles strengthened by choosing to obey on his own, without compulsion. If this sounds like a fine line, after further reading, I can only conclude that it is a very fine line.

    • Allowing for Free Will: Again, we see that delicate balance. Charlotte describes children as existing in a delicate balance between free will … and fate:

      He has liberty, that is, with a sense of must behind it to relieve him of that unrest which comes with the constant effort of decision. He is free to do as he ought, but … he is not free to do that which he ought not.

      The child, in other words, is just like us. He is free to do right in as many ways as he wishes. He is not free to do wrong, to lie, to disobey, and so on. Charlotte described this phenomenon as almost “too subtle to be grasped” but I was fascinated by it because of its similarity to man in the garden. He had liberty in regard to all the trees in the garden, save one. Charlotte says of ourselves,

      We are free to go in the ways of right living, and have the happy sense of liberty of choice, but the ways of transgressors are hard. We are aware of a restraining hand in the present, and of sure and certain retribution in the future. Just this delicate poise is to be aimed at for the children.

    • Serenity: Charlotte here talks about, essentially, protecting the mother’s internal peace. Let the mother go out to play! she says. Her recommendation is that the mother, having hit upon tense times, take a bit of time off … without the children. I cringed here. I admit it: I did. I have always had angst concerning the idea of “me time,” and part of the reason is that I think that, culturally, we prefer to grasp at spurts of “me time” rather than build lives that are actually livable. With that said, we also have on our hands a culture in which some moms feel guilty for using the bathroom alone. If a day alone at an art museum is going to help a mom balance her life out a bit, so be it. Charlotte’s point is not what we do or do not do, but the underlying attitude of serenity, being a mother who is at peace with the world, and confident as a result.
    • Leisure: The stress of rushing through life or through important events can result from different things. Charlotte mentions deciding to do something a week in advance, something which really requires a month — how much more pleasurable to have had the whole month, rather than a stress-filled week! And how sad the result:

      Nellie has suffered physically and morally in doing what, if it had been thought of a month beforehand, would have been altogether wholesome and delightful.

      When we plan crazy busy days, we have to be careful. Charlotte says that our own stress is contagious:

      We do more than we can ourselves, our nerves are ‘on end,’ what with the fatigue and what with the little excitement, and everybody in the house or the school is uncomfortable. Again, the children take advantage, so we say; the real fact being that they have caught their mother’s mood and are fretful and tiresome.

      Again, I see that Charlotte is not saying whether we should or should not do any particular thing, but is rather addressing our approach and scolding us for, essentially, unnerving our own children with our anxious, stressful ways. Leisure is the basis of culture, some say. A sense of repose is necessary for sound thinking and peaceful lives, so perhaps pursuing that sense of leisure is doing a thing which makes for peace.

    • Faith: Charlotte says faith is the “highest form of confidence,” which makes it a great place to end, for confidence seems to be the common theme throughout. Charlotte saved the best for last. We are not, she says, everything to our children, nor should we aspire to be. We have a solemn task, to be sure, but we are not gods. The Father is still sovereign:

      When we recognise that God does not make over the bringing up of children absolutely even to their parents, but that He works Himself, in ways which is must be our care not to hinder, in the training of every child, then we shall learn passiveness, humble and wise.

    And with that, we conclude the discussion of chapter three. Chapter four, Charlotte tells us, will apply the concept of masterly inactivity to particular situations, once again putting feet on her ideas, that we might all walk about in her wisdom.

    Want to Go Deep With Masterly Inactivity?

    Masterly Inactivity: Charlotte Mason's Secret to Successfully Leading Your Homeschool

    The talk Brandy’s been giving (you already own the video version if you purchased the Leading Well retreat in 2017) is now available in the Afterthoughts Shop. Try masterly inactivity! It’s not a hack — it’s a way of life. ♥

    Click here to grab your copy!

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  • Reply Harmony March 2, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    I missed this post last summer, so I’m glad you linked back to it. What a great concept. This gives me a lot to think about.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts July 28, 2010 at 10:24 pm


    That is exactly what I thought! Charlotte straightened me out, though.

    I look forward to reading your forthcoming posts! I have missed reading your thoughts.


    Me, too. 🙁


  • Reply Willa July 28, 2010 at 1:57 am

    Great post! …especially linking masterly inactivity with the classical teacher’s attitude. I too think that CM’s age has much to say to ours. Our society in general seems much more irresponsible than hers was, but in an effort to go against the culture, the tendency of idealistic parents nowadays, as in her day, seems to be “superparenting” and it probably doesn’t give the kids enough air and space to grow as they could. I know I’ve made some mistakes in that regard myself.

  • Reply Mystie July 26, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    I also thought masterly activity was something the children were supposed to be doing — or not doing? — or something like that. 🙂 I only skimmed this quickly and will come back late next week. I have a friend coming to stay with us for a week. It’s given me motivation to get on top of some things and I think after she leaves I’ll be able to get back to reading and thinking and writing. 🙂

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