Redeeming the Six Arts: A Review by Jeremy Tate

Classical education is a great gift of the Western world; but what about the world beyond the West?

Traditional Chinese education is currently seeing a revival in China, not entirely unlike the classical renewal movement here in the United States. However, where ours is a grassroots movement and tends to have strong ties to Christianity, the revival of classical Chinese education is favored by the officially atheistic state, leaving many Chinese Christians ambivalent at best. Moreover, the materials brought to China by Western educators (both Christian and secular) tend, naturally enough, to be European classics rather than Chinese ones, and some people get the impression that European learning is inherently more appropriate or suited to the gospel than that of China.

Meet Brent Pinkall, a lecturer at New Saint Andrew’s College who has spent many years in China working in Christian ministry. In his new book, Redeeming the Six Arts, Pinkall paints quite a different picture of the classical learning of China. The Church “baptized” the pagan tradition of the Greeks and Romans because, while it did have flaws, there was much in it that was good, wise, beautiful, and noble. Pinkall argues that in just the same way, the Chinese tradition is full of goodness, wisdom, beauty, and nobility, and the treasures of Chinese learning are well worth baptizing. Indeed, it is particularly appropriate for Christians in China to baptize them, both by enjoying those achievements and by passing them on to their children. It is, of course, not wrong or bad for Chinese students to learn Western material as well, any more than it would be bad for us to read Confucius or Laozi; but they have both a duty to their forefathers, and a right as fellow men, to treasure first the heirlooms they have received—to craft an education that is both fully Christian and classically Chinese.

After discussing the historical and philosophical background of the “Six Arts” of the Chinese canon, Pinkall goes on to describe ways that a contemporary school might implement them. It is striking that the classical Chinese model, while by no means identical with the Western, displays clear similarities to it in matter as well as in method. The “Six Arts” are li (“rites; law, right conduct”), yue (“music”), shū (“script, writing”), shŭ (“calculation, mathematics”), she (“archery”), and yu (“charioteering, horsemanship”). Li, the moral element of education, is front and center, thanks not least to the influence of Confucius. Yue, shū, and shŭ line up—inexactly, but clearly—with music, grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, and geometry (and if we wished to be particular about astronomy, it could easily furnish material for those last two disciplines). Pinkall even makes a case for reinstating she and yu, arguing that if anything they suggest a corrective to the absence of physical education in the Western model, and that they form a natural field in which to help cultivate virtues like courage.

Pinkall’s Redeeming the Six Arts makes a clear and compelling case for the revival of classical Chinese education in a Christian context. It is, moreover, a case we rarely see. We’ve all read a great deal about the universal and timeless appeal of Plato, Virgil, St. Augustine, and so on, and that is true so far as it goes, but we are not often challenged to consider the virtues of Mencius, Liu Xie, and Zhu Xi. Classical educators who only know the Western model will be fascinated to learn a little about this radically different, equally lovely flower in the divine garden; Chinese Christians, in reading it, can lay to rest any concerns that they must put aside the grandeur of their own civilization, or become Western in order to enjoy a genuinely classical and Christian education. Take a look!

Jeremy Tate is the founder and CEO of the Classic Learning Test. Jeremy is also the host of the Anchored Podcast, CLT’s top 2% global podcast that features discussions at the intersection of education and culture. Prior to founding CLT, Jeremy served as Director of College Counseling at Mount de Sales Academy in Catonsville, Maryland. He received his Bachelor of Science in Secondary Education from Louisiana State University and a Masters in Religious Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary. Jeremy and his wife Erin reside in Annapolis, Maryland with their six children. You can find Jeremy on Twitter @JeremyTate41.

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