Carnegie Commons Blog

Tim Talks With Yo-Yo Ma

In these Tim Talks, Carnegie President Tim Knowles engages “friends, allies, and conspirators” in micro-conversations about education, equity, and the future of learning.


Yo-Yo Ma is the newest board member of the Carnegie Foundation. Musician, educator, and innovator, Yo-Yo strives to foster the connections that can dissolve borders, stimulate the imagination, and spark collaboration.

In this wide-ranging conversation with Carnegie Foundation President Timothy Knowles, Yo-Yo shares his thoughts on what’s at stake during this moment of “punctuated equilibrium” when large and rapid change can burst into the world over a short period of time and cause a dramatic realignment of thinking and experience. Says Yo-Yo, “We need to work like crazy to try and get good things going, constructive things going of lasting value … (before we) settle into some form of normalcy.”

Yo-Yo and Tim go on to discuss the future of learning, why young people will be instrumental to leveraging this moment to make real change for humanity and for the earth, and how happiness can be found in confronting challenges.

“The happy person is one who is fully present and fully engaged and fully participatory in life,” says Yo-Yo, “personally, internally, externally, and communally.”

TRANSCRIPT

Tim Knowles (TK): Hello, thank you for joining me. I’m Timothy Knowles, president of the Carnegie Foundation. Today, I’m having a micro-conversation with Yo-Yo Ma. Yo-Yo is a friend, conspirator, and the newest board member of the Carnegie Foundation. He’s also one of the wisest and most hopeful people I know. In our conversation, we’re going to discuss the potential of the moment we’re in, the future of learning, and why young people will be instrumental to leveraging this moment to make real change for humanity and for the earth. I hope you enjoy the conversation. Let’s plunge right in.

Yo-Yo Ma (YM): The way I can describe what might be an exciting moment right now in what we’re all doing together as also individually is the fact that I think we may be experiencing, a short period of time where there can be a surge in change. What do I mean by that? I think there’s an evolutionary term called punctuated equilibrium. What does that mean?

It means very simply that in evolution a lot of things change incrementally. But every once in a while, there’s a burst of activity where a lot of change happens in a short period of time before things settling down to going back to incremental change.

I’m wondering, and this is what makes me excited, are we at one of those moments in both biological-evolutionarily speaking, but even more so these days, because it happens faster, culturally-evolutionarily speaking. And if it were true, then we need to work like crazy to try and get good things going, constructive things going of lasting value that can jump into this sort of reverse cascade moment and then settle into some form of normalcy.

TK: So, I love this hopefulness that you’re putting on the table. And I like the idea that we might be approaching or in a period of unpunctuated disequilibrium as it were.

YM: I like that.

TK: Certainly the unpunctuated part makes lots of sense to me.

YM: Negatively positive.

TK: Exactly. If the Prussian king got into his time machine after breakfast and came here now, he wouldn’t recognize anything on his way to the school house, but when he got there, he would say, “Oh, this looks familiar. Here we are 150 years later or more and it’s really, really resilient and resistant to fundamental shift. And so I’m thinking about your evolutionary point and I agree that in the ether and in the air, we are at a, it feels as though we’re at a tipping point, even in terms of education and how we think learning and teaching might look. But what do we do about this conundrum? What can we do to leap frog as it were the versions of learning that are so deeply entrenched and how do we make it more interesting, more rigorous, more engaging for more young people?

YM: Well, I think one of the things I think a lot about is the idea that at any time in human evolution, there were things that we could not explain to ourselves. 15,000 years ago today and who do we go to, to explain the unexplainable? There used to be storytellers. There were priests, scientists, there were artists, and somehow they’re the myth makers.

And we, at some point we’re always looking at what we know is familiar and something, and things that we know that are unfamiliar and that’s zero and one of our digital age. And out of just those two things, we have invented and constructed so many of our knowledge bases, of our disciplines, of our cultures, of our economics, of our politics, of our ideologies. We invented all this stuff.

And what’s interesting to me is that so much of America was actually invented by people in their twenties. Now, Lafayette was 18, right? Hamilton was like, what, 23, something like that. And look, here we’re old men discussing this. And what I’m saying is, are we forgetting that wisdom is found in very ancient cultures, in very old people, but also in very young people? The French revolution, same thing.

So two of our, the bulwarks of how our modern nation states were constructed, were by people who were very young. And are we listening to the people who are very young? Because I believe there are people who are very young today that actually if encouraged and they already know how they think is a more equitable world, a world that actually is in partnership with nature and how they want to spend their money, consume, and work, and live. They want to have something that’s organic as opposed to my life where you chose a profession, then you kind of went into it for life.

Are we forgetting that wisdom is found in very ancient cultures, in very old people, but also in very young people?

TK: In your audio book, who knew that Yo-Yo had an audiobook, but I do now know, “Beginner’s Mind,” you call on us to be open to new questions, and connections, and unexpected answers. So this is a time for precisely that, to the paradigm shift I think you opened with. So can you talk a bit about the path of the beginner’s mind and what it would suggest for teachers and students about seizing the moment we’re in for something more fundamentally interesting and equitable.

YM: Again, I think this comes back to balancing the “shoulds” and the “wants.” If you’re trained as a teacher, you think you have a body of knowledge that you need to share with somebody else. And as a performer, I feel like it’s what I think the commonality between a performer and a teacher is how much people, the recipient, the student, or whoever you’re sharing this knowledge with actually connects to the thing that you’re transferring, and whether it’s alive in them to connect to something else.

Whether you pass the test, whether you ace it, whether you get the certificate, or you get the diploma it’s really whether you’re using your trigonometry when you’re 39 years old. Whether you’re using your world history when you’re 64, when you’re—whether you connect it to something else. Because I know from my own history, I mean, education history, how much I’ve forgotten or don’t use that I’ve actually studied. In which case that piece of knowledge is dormant, it’s inactive.

And we know that the happy person is one who is fully present and fully engaged and fully participatory in life, personally, internally, externally, communally. And we know that’s true. We know that people who have taken risks to try and do something that they think is worthwhile like veterans, they feel most alive when they were in danger because they know what’s at stake and they also know what they’re willing to give up in order to have something be accomplished.

So, people talk about “the war on cancer,” “on education.” Well, the war in a sense is about ourselves. It’s like saying, “We should win the war that makes us into these thriving individuals and communities that are learning communities that actually allow us to thrive on this planet.” That’s the higher goal. And yes, it turns into jobs. But if we get to those goals, we will succeed in creating happier, thriving, and healthy communities.

We know that the happy person is one who is fully present and fully engaged and fully participatory in life, personally, internally, externally, communally.

TK: I love that premise that in essence, the measure of success with regard to a young person being the extent to which they connected it, applied it, used it, shared it. The extent to which it motivated them versus really the traditional paradigm is the extent to which you can repeat it. right?

YM: Right, because that was the industrial age. Because we were training workers to actually follow instructions. Now, it is true that a lot of college graduates sometimes don’t follow instructions.

TK: I count myself among them proudly.

YM: I’m horrible with instructions. So, I’m just saying that we need people who are resilient. Who can actually, who know they have access to possibilities that when something shifts, because the world is changing very quickly, you know how to shift and you know how to recognize things that are close to you and far away from you and see the relationship and constantly be aware of that.

Young people are aware of that because they are actually digital natives the way that you and I are not. And so there’s an advantage, and there’s an advantage to that wisdom, but then you have to think, what do they need? Well, they need things maybe that we know that they don’t have.

Maybe it’s a sense of history. Maybe it’s a sense of, because they’re aware of what everybody their own age is doing everywhere, whereas we might not be. They are, so what’s the advantage? The advantage is if we have a large, common world problem to solve, they will be on it if we give them the opportunity and accelerate those opportunities and trust them.

Now, that’s a hard thing, it’s a hard thing to do if you don’t think that the values are built in. That’s why values are so important. Because if we trust young people to do the right things that they know how to do, and we give them that authority earlier than we, the way we earned it, “Well, it took me so many years. So you do the same.” No, that’s a different world. And so what about giving them that custodial responsibility earlier. And for them to actually look for wisdom in their own time.

The advantage is if we have a large, common world problem to solve, they [young people] will be on it if we give them the opportunity and accelerate those opportunities and trust them.

TK: When I went back to South Africa, after apartheid fell and I met with phenomenal people who were involved in writing the constitution, artists who’d been resisting. To a person, they said, you know who we have to thank for this for the fall of the apartheid: teachers and students. It was absolutely consistent and it reminded me, it reminds me every day, to your point about powerful beyond measure in terms of young people and what they can do and accomplish for much greater good.

YM: It’s funny. The same case in East Germany in Leipzig. I was there for I think maybe the 40th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. It’s one big. And I went to the Nicolai Kirche which is where so many of the resistance Monday night meetings started and I met a couple who were there and they now have, they brought a young teenager to play for me. But we started talking and they said, “Yeah, we went there, we marched. And the air was so thick with all these young people. All these people saying, knowing something going to happen, but the troops were there also.” So it was like a tinderbox. And I think Kurt Masur said, “Please, please, please be peaceful.” Whatever. And lo and behold, something that we thought was impossible during our, and maybe even the next lifetime, it changed. And they were in tears talking about that, very much what you said about in South Africa.

TK: South Africa.

YM: There’s that energy of people in different places that they just know, you can’t keep the truth away from people even if with firewalls and all of that. So what are we going to do with all that energy? How can we say, “This is good energy that will do the responsible thing?” Again, the trust factor. Is it good?

TK: Yeah, so I think this is an amazing punctuation mark for this conversation, because I think it is rich with hope. If you’re right and that this moment could be accelerative on lots of fronts, then rooting it around trust and engagement from the generation that’s coming, whether it’s on the climate front or it’s on the improvement of the educational pathway front, or any front, it feels like exactly the right place to build your foundation. So, Yo-Yo—

YM: You’re building the foundation, and you are rebuilding, and actually you’re renewing the commitment of the foundation and I am so unbelievably honored to serve on your board, partly because I’ve known you for—

TK: 317 years, I think.

YM: Exactly and counting.

TK: Yeah.

YM: And so, because I know your spirit, which is, but I also know a little bit about the history of what this Foundation has accomplished in its entirety. And so where do we need to go now? And I’m just, I’m here for the ride and I’m fully committed and can’t wait to be with my fellow board members and to see what they have to say and to teach us so we can do the right thing for this year.

TK: Okay, Yo-Yo. Well, I so appreciate you taking time and look forward to seeing you in national parks, in board meetings, wherever you may be.

YM: Anywhere.