The backbone of high tech: literacy

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This past weekend, Jim Barksdale spoke at Harvard Business School's annual Cyberposium. Mr. Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape, is a heavy hitter, the kind of guy business-school graduates dream of becoming. He's worth "north of $700 million," as he puts it.

Barksdale was there to talk about the great opportunities that come from great problems. And high on his list was illiteracy.

How many people, he wondered aloud, think that if cost is no barrier, 80 percent of Americans will be connected to the Internet in the next 10 years?

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The setup sharpened his next point: 22 percent of US adults can't read well. That means a lot of people can't negotiate a map, can't peruse a paper. And they can't read what's on the Internet.

Illiteracy is the core problem in US education, Barksdale said, and it's holding high-tech hostage. He noted that TechNet, a lobbying group of 300 CEOs of high-tech businesses that he co-founded, consistently agrees on only one issue in its annual survey: improving public education.

Barksdale and his wife, Sally, created a $100 million endowment last year to boost literacy in their home state of Mississippi. They want kids reading well by third grade, a key indicator of future success in school.

Illiteracy is indeed a great problem, and one that dogs the US despite decades of calls for improvement and new methods. Boosting reading requires lots of patience and support. Let's hope Barksdale's audience of future CEOs takes his message to heart and decides there's a great opportunity in contributing to a solution.

Speech Webcast: http://video.hbs. edu/ playVideo.jhtml?clip=cy2001_visionary_2

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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