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Reading, technology will change Mississippi

From the Ground Up

A recent column about my most unforgettable teachers prompted several readers to write and share memories of their unforgettable teachers. Since then we have had a governor’s race won by a candidate who stressed education as his hallmark, a $100-million gift to establish a reading program and another gift to place a computer in every classroom in DeSoto County.

Education is obviously a subject of interest in Mississippi these days.

Several teachers wrote to point out that many of today’s unforgettable teachers will be retiring soon. They entered the teaching profession two or three decades ago when some of the better jobs available to women were that of teaching. Many of today’s brightest women have more career opportunities than in the past, resulting in fewer of those bright women choosing the teaching profession. There seems to be a concern that the quality of teachers may be going down as more of the older teachers retire. Add to that the fact that the retention rate of new teachers is low compared to the past, and it is not difficult to see the challenges that face the educational system.

Regarding the Jim and Sally Barksdale gift to establish the Barksdale Reading Center, I can only say that these are Mississippi heroes in my book. The studies are showing that early childhood reading makes a critical difference. This gift has the potential to do more for Mississippi than anything I have ever seen. Can you imagine a society in which everyone is literate? Being able to read is freedom for the individual.

Reading is special to me for many reasons, but mostly because of an experience I had as a youth. Midway during my seventh grade year of school it was necessary for me to leave my Jackson junior high school and move to a rural area to live with my grandfather for a year. My grandmother had taken ill, and he and I lived alone on a small farm. My grandfather was one of the smartest men I have ever known, but he couldn’t read. Every night for a year I read to him from Progressive Farmer, Reader’s Digest, the local newspaper and anything else I could get my hands on. The joy of seeing him smile as I read an article was special. Reading caused us to converse about many subjects that I had read. We were drawn closer because of reading.

Bob Pittman’s efforts at placing a computer at every desk in DeSoto County is also ground-breaking event. I truly believe that the computer is going to be the vehicle that helps poor school districts catch up to the wealthier districts. I think Pittman believes that also. A few years ago I had a chance to hear him speak at a convention, then spend a few minutes talking to him. I had heard about his penchant for understanding and studying human behavior, and a comment he made really bore that impression out. Pittman said that pay TV would not catch on like video cassette recorders. His reasoning was that a viewer watching a VCR could pause a movie, allowing him or her to take a short break. Pay TV did not allow that because the movie couldn’t be stopped. It seemed like a small point, but he was right. Bob Pittman understands consumer behavior. That’s part of the reason for his success.

It is a gratifying feeling to see these Mississippi business leaders recognize the role that education plays in our state. Reading and technology will change Mississippi for the better.

Phil Hardwick’s column appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is hardwickp@aol.com.

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