2019 Commencement Address by Yo-Yo Ma

“Let us remember: Every struggle for reform, innovation, or justice starts with a voice in the wilderness,” Ma told the Class of 2019.

Thank you. Thank you to President Hanlon and to the trustees for granting me the great honor of speaking at this commencement, the 250th anniversary of Dartmouth College!

I’d like to offer my best wishes to my fellow honorands; to the staff and faculty of the College; to the parents and families of the graduates, who have supported and guided them through all these years; and to all the graduates—this is your day! Congratulations!

You have not only completed four memorable years, you even made it, in whatever state you’re in, to commencement!

I could begin by telling you you’re special, but I suspect your families have already told you that. I could tell you that you’re smart, but I’m certain your professors have already told you that, too. That you’re accomplished is without question—just look at where you’re sitting today!

You have learned so much over the last four years. There’s very little I can say to you that you don’t already know. Some might even say you know it all. But seriously, if I could just add one little bit of wisdom, it’s this: that you will be powerful. 

You, Dartmouth Class of 2019, are individuals with enormous knowledge, skill, and capacity. Some of you will become entrepreneurs and CEOs. Some will be influential academics, journalists; others, great artists, jurists, athletes, and politicians. You will be great teachers, engineers, researchers, nurses, doctors, financiers, parents, and social innovators.

It may take you one year or 30, but each one of you sitting out there today is going to be powerful. You are going to be in a position to set examples and to make decisions.

Yes, decisions that will affect not only your life, but also the lives of those around you: your families, your friends, your colleague—even me, if I live long enough. 

And your decisions will also affect people you’ll never meet—future generations. So, that’s power. But power isn't something we are necessarily born with knowing how to use well. There’s no instruction manual; there’s no guide to exercising power with care and restraint.

So that’s why today—when your bags are packed, your friends are dispersing, and your place in this class is carved in stone—I want you to take a moment. Forget about the power you might have had here and think instead about the power you will have in the future—in 10, 20, 30 years—and promise yourself something. Promise yourself that when you find your power, you will use it thoughtfully, with restraint, and with good intention.

You will be powerful. And when you are, do not abuse your power. Ever.

Now, I’m sure that in the course of your lifetime, including the last four years, you have witnessed power and its abuse. When you were young, you probably saw it on the playground. You’ve seen it on this campus. We certainly have all seen it in our nation, and around the world.

In my own lifetime, I’ve seen too many people make decisions that put themselves before their community, before society, before the health of our planet. I’ve seen too many people who choose to build walls rather than bridges.

Sometimes it’s because of the arrogance of their certitude, or because of simple, blissful unawareness. Sometimes it’s because of their ego, or self-deception, and sometimes it’s a deliberate act of revenge. Other times, it’s the primal, addictive pursuit of conquest—conquest of all kinds.

What’s worse is that we come up with a lot of excuses for this behavior. We tell ourselves that we’re making decisions based on efficiency, on the balance sheet, on superior intelligence or unique talent and understanding. We tell ourselves it’s for the protection of our tribe or our trade. But by reducing decisions to these standards, we are forgetting about the empathy we are born with, about the trust others have put in us, and about the obligations to one another as human beings.

That is why culture is so important. Culture resists reduction and constantly reminds us of the beautiful complexities that humans are made of, both individually and collectively. The stories we tell; the music we make; the experiments and buildings we design. Everything that helps us to understand ourselves, to understand one another, to understand our environment—culture.

But, it’s not just the culture we learn about in textbooks or see in a museum. It’s the arts and sciences; all the different disciplines that ask us to try, to trust, and to build. It’s culture that inspires deep learning and curiosity, that makes us want to seek the universal principles that drive everything.

Today, everywhere I go—whenever I hear music effortlessly crossing a border or see an example of art transcending economic and political differences or witness scientists from dozens of countries collaborating—I am reminded how essential culture has always been, in every era, every tradition.

Two weeks ago, I was in Spain. I made a pilgrimage to visit the home of one my great heroes, the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals. He was 97 years old when I was a freshman in college. He had lived through World War I, the Spanish Civil War, World War II.

I was so lucky to have played for him when I was 7 years old. He said I was talented. His advice to me then: Make sure you have time to play baseball.

And I’ll let you imagine how that might have worked out.

But in reality, that wise counsel, “to make time for baseball,” was a profound reflection of the philosophy that motivated his life. Casals always thought of himself as a human being first, as a musician second, and only then a cellist. It’s a philosophy that I’ve held close to my heart for most of my own life.

Now, I had always known Casals as a great advocate for human dignity. But standing in his home two weeks ago, I understood what it meant for him to live that philosophy, what it meant for him to be a human being first. I began to understand just a few of the thousands of actions he took every day, every month. Each was in the service of his fellow human beings.

I saw letters of protest he wrote to newspapers from London to Tokyo. I saw meticulous, handwritten accounts of his enormous financial contributions to countless refugees fleeing the carnage of the Spanish Civil War—evidence of a powerful, humanistic life.

My visit to Casals’ house was a reminder to me that we must all try to use our power well. Because to not use our power is to abuse it.

To not speak, to remain silent in the face of uncertainty, in the face of the insecurity and massive changes that confront us today, that every one of us confronts every day of our lives—that is an abuse of power.

Let us remember: Every struggle for reform, innovation, or justice starts with a voice in the wilderness. A voice in the wilderness. Vox clamantis in deserto. You all know that. 

So, as you go forward today, I’d just like to leave you with this one thought: You have, and always will have, more power than you know. Never abuse this power. Never abuse this power. It is a gift. Use it with great care and with great intention. Listen to the voices crying in the wilderness; become one of those voices, a voice for justice and for hope.

Remember, always, that you are a human being first. It’s a truth embedded in the very foundation of your liberal arts education. Practice your humanity daily. Practice that truth. Let it power your decisions, let it inspire your thoughts, and let it shape your ideals. Then you will soar. You will fly. And you will help others soar and fly.

I would like to leave you now by playing one song. It’s called the Song of the Birds—Pablo Casals’ favorite folk song from his beloved Catalonia. A love song to nature and humanity, a song about freedom, about the freedom of birds when they take flight, soaring across borders.

And I would like to dedicate this piece to you, Class of 2019, with, once again, my heartiest congratulations.

[Yo-Yo Ma plays Song of the Birds.]