Character and Conduct are More Important than Academics
“After achieving right conduct, if there’s energy left over then study books. 行有餘力則以學文。 ” (Di Zi Gui page 6.)
Conduct and character are most important and certainly comes before book learning, i.e., before academics. That is the traditional view of authentic Chinese culture.
Of course, I don’t mean to set the two up as opposite and mutually exclusive: conduct and character on the one hand and academics on the other. Good heavens, no! In fact, the two should go together: the youngsters who have good conduct also know they should exert themselves at academics and achieve the best they are capable of. In fact, achieving the best one can in all areas of endeavor, study as well as career, is considered an indispensible part of xiao 孝 (how in Cantonese), or being good to one’s parents.
The reason I bring up conduct and character as being more important than and coming before academics is because there seems to be an idea among some parents that as long as their children get good grades, it does not matter that they are often impolite, inconsiderate, rude, self-centered, mean, disrespectful, and sometimes even dishonest, especially to parents and siblings.
Actually to not have good character and conduct is to not know how to interact with people, and to not know how to interact with people is to guarantee failure and misery in life. Also, to not have good character and conduct is to have no inner, moral strength, and to have no inner, moral strength is to not be able to cope with the many storms and setbacks that are bound to be encountered through one’s life. Also, to not have good character and conduct is to have no compass in life, to not know right from wrong, to bend every which way the wind blows and not be able to choose the correct option at critical junctures of life. Only with good character and conduct can a successful and happy life be guaranteed.
Therefore, yes, if one has to choose, choose conduct and character over academics!
Of course, that is usually not the choice; the choice is whether to have both conduct and character on the one hand and academics on the other, or to have only academics.
Even though traditional Chinese culture is one that values and emphasizes academics for thousands of years, authentic traditional Chinese culture in all its wisdom knows that, despite the importance of academics, character and conduct is more important than academic success.
That is also why American elite colleges don’t look just at grades, but also at other characteristics that often have to do with character and conduct, to decide whether to accept applicants. Often the colleges will accept someone with outstanding character over someone with better academics.