“Redeeming the Six Arts: A Christian Approach to Classical Chinese Education,” Reviewed by Jacob Andrews

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This is an Altum essay by Jacob Andrews.

Redeeming the Six ArtsClassical education, as it’s usually portrayed, is centered on teaching the texts and truths of the Western cultural tradition. Does that mean that classical education is culture-bound, of temporary rather than perennial value? Can classical education exist outside of the Western world? Supposing it could, would it mean assimilating non-Westerners to Western culture? Brent Pinkall, a classical educator and minister with years of experience teaching in China and the United States, gives an intriguing answer to these questions in his book, Redeeming the Six Arts: A Christian Approach to Classical Chinese Education (Roman Roads Press, 2022). It is one of my favorite books this year.

The book has two parts. Part One offers a bird’s-eye view of the history of education in China. Pinkall shows that Chinese education has historically centered on the Six Arts—rites, music, script, calculation, archery, and charioteering—supplemented with Confucian texts, an approach to education based on mastering traditional skills and reading traditional texts with the aim of developing virtue. Sound familiar?

In Part Two, Pinkall casts his vision for Chinese Christian classical education in three movements. First, he argues on the basis of the commandment to “Honor thy father and mother” that, although Chinese classical education should be like Western classical education by making Jesus the foundation, it should focus on reading and studying pre-Christian Chinese literature rather than Western equivalents. Second, he lays out his plan for a classical Chinese curriculum. He takes the Six Arts to be parallel to the Western Trivium and Quadrivium, and shows how a Six Arts system, augmented with the study of Confucian and Western classics, can be authentically Chinese and truly Christian. Third, he discusses some obstacles to implementing his vision of education in China today. As someone who does not live in China, I learned a lot from this section.

Redeeming the Six Arts is one of the most exciting books I have read in a long time. There are three key reasons why this is true.

To begin with, Pinkall is learned. Do you know that feeling when you are reading a survey of some topic and can’t help but suspect that the author has skipped or misrepresented a vital figure, event, or idea? As a non-expert you have to trust your teacher, and yet you can’t push away that crawling suspicion. Not once did I have that feeling as I read Redeeming the Six Arts. Pinkall’s exposition of Chinese pedagogical history is both broad and deep. He is patient and clear without ever being patronizing. He draws from a wide range of Confucian texts, including texts not available in English: not just the Analects and the Mencius, which are the Confucian texts English readers are most likely to know, but also writings like The Doctrine of the Mean and The Classic of Ritual, which held a more prominent place in Confucian education for most of Chinese history. Pinkall has challenged me to include such texts in my syllabus the next time I teach Chinese philosophy.

Secondly, aside from his breadth of knowledge of Chinese literature and history, Pinkall is creative. This is the great virtue of Part Two. Ancient and medieval Christians did not just mimic pagan education, but transformed it into something new, and Pinkall is trying to do the same for China. Pinkall’s classical Chinese education is rooted in the Six Arts, and he shows creatively how even archery and charioteering can help form the basis of a classical educational system.

Thirdly, Pinkall is fair. In Part One, he presents Chinese educational history without idealizing it, highlighting the strengths of the tradition while pointing out the many ways in which it has failed to live up to its own ideals. His contrast between the goals of intellectual and moral development expressed in the Chinese classics and the utilitarian, examination-based system that developed later (p. 89) was particularly exciting. Could classical, Christian pedagogy produce an authentically Chinese rival to Xi Jinping’s secular, anti-Christian Confucianism? In Part Two, Pinkall’s vision of classical education is, although unique, quite balanced. I had many concerns and objections as I read the book, and I found that almost every one of them was eventually answered, either by refutation or by incorporating that concern into the overall vision.

My remaining criticism has to do with his definition of classical education as rooted in the Fifth Commandment. I am on record as supporting a multicultural view of classical education, and I would love to see a school that implements Pinkall’s curriculum. However, I have some concerns with his educational philosophy (as opposed to the concrete curriculum).

Pinkall is a bit quick in his application of the Fifth Commandment. I am sympathetic with his extension of the commandment to culture, but it is an extension, not a direct application. Whenever we extend a Scriptural rule beyond its original context, we should be that much more cautious about how stringently we condemn those who do not agree. Does Pinkall really want to apply Christ’s condemnation of the Pharisees in Matthew 15 to those who disagree with him about pedagogy (p. 103), or say that Christians who do not baptize and transmit the pagan culture in which they were reared are in “direct violation of the Fifth Commandment” (pp. 238)? On the other hand, Pinkall has opened my eyes to how controversial the teaching of Chinese classics really is in China, so maybe in the context in which he teaches such fierce rhetoric is needed.

Following from this, Pinkall’s definition of it entails that classical education is culturally relative and risks robbing it of its perennial value. On his view, what classical educators should teach in the West is determined by Western culture, and what classical educators should teach in China is determined by Chinese culture. He does not identify any specific unique feature of classical education beyond a focus on Christ and use of the classics of whatever culture one finds oneself in. In that case, what separates classical education from other forms of private Christian education is the age of the materials used, not their perennial value, contrary to what classical educators typically claim. In tandem with a more nuanced definition of classical education, Pinkall’s creative and balanced curricular vision can easily answer this claim. So, a more careful definition is needed.

In his eagerness to formulate a Chinese classical pedagogy, Pinkall underestimates the mutual interdependence of Christianity and Western culture—understandably, since this has been overemphasized in the past. It’s not just that we in the West have had more time to assimilate Western classics. The Church itself, both East and West, has been deeply influenced by Greco-Roman culture. So Western pagan writers are intellectual fathers of all or most Christians, not just Western ones. Pinkall is absolutely right that this is not a good reason to reject the Chinese classics—one of the things his book opened my eyes to was the degree to which Chinese Christian educators are doing just that, to their students’ loss. But I worry that Pinkall conflates studying Western culture as a vital part of a classical Christian education with adopting Western culture as one’s own. They are not the same. I teach Latin, but I’m not a Roman.

Pinkall argues, citing C. S. Lewis, that everything in pagan Western literature needed for modern education can be taught using dictionaries and other reference material (p. 192). But isn’t there a reason medieval professors taught the idea of virtue, not just by quoting Christian manuals of moral theology, but by lecturing on Aristotle? And the contest of reason and the passions we see in the opening passages of the Aeneid is an aspect of pagan culture that deeply impacted the Christian view of the self and of sin and virtue. You can’t learn these things well by reading off references; you have to be immersed in the literature. Otherwise, a modernist could reply: can’t you extend the use of reference material to all classics, all cultural heritage? Pinkall is right that Chinese students can navigate Christian literature in English translation, without learning Latin (p. 174)—but then, so can Americans. Pinkall’s argument, unless very carefully qualified, risks undermining classical education altogether.

Now, when Pinkall actually lays out his proposed course of education, it looks much more balanced than his initial articulation would suggest. He himself says that Chinese classical schools should incorporate Western classics into their curriculum, and his suggestions for how to do this are brilliant. I found his Chinese philosophical basis for the Trivium quite compelling: his exposition of the idea of cosmic wen or literature was one of the most intellectually exciting things I’ve read recently (pp. 48ff.), and his pairing of parallel passages of Zhu Xi and Hugh of St. Victor (p. 126) was a triumph.

Indeed, Pinkall shows beautifully how these two great traditions stand to learn a lot from each other. From China, the West can learn the importance of ritual and martial arts such as archery in education. In my own experience, the Confucian and particularly Xunzian approach to ritual has been important to my approach to classroom management. Notable ideas include his parallel between ritual and grammar (pp. 14,21-22) and the idea that the asking of questions is a form of ritual (p. 35). From the West, China can learn a greater self-consciousness about the use of language through the Trivium, in particular grammar. Pinkall is right that Chinese classical schools should teach classical Chinese instead of Latin. But, since there was no historic science of grammar in China, teaching classical Chinese at a technical level means using Western tools of linguistic analysis.

My hope is that we don’t end up with two very different kinds of culturally relative classical educations, but two (or more!) flavors of a unified, Christian approach to education. And I think this is Pinkall’s hope, too. I look forward to a day when high school philosophy classes in America focus on Aristotle and Plato with units on Confucius and Laozi, and vice versa in China; when it is commonplace for Chinese high schools to offer electives in Latin and American high schools in Classical Chinese; when American art teachers teach calligraphy and Chinese teachers illumination. Until that day comes, the West will be uniquely indispensable for classical education. Pinkall’s challenge to us is: How can we make China equally indispensable?


Jacob Andrews earned a PhD in Philosophy from Loyola Univerisity in Chicago. He teaches Latin, Logic, and Philosophy at Covenant Classical School in Naperville, IL.

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