I am not a native Mississippian, and when I decided to accept a teaching position in Mississippi, my colleagues and friends in both Georgia and Tennessee quickly pointed out that although Mississippi had produced many of the nation's great writers the illiteracy rate remained very high.

Being an English major in college and having read a great deal, I reminded my friends that I was looking forward to teaching in the land of Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Richard Wright and Tennessee Williams. Surely Mississippi was the seed bed of good writing, and her writers were the product of a society where education was a priority.

In the time since I came to Mississippi, the state has produced among others such literary luminaries as Nevada Barr, Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, John Grisham, Margaret Walker Alexander, and Richard Ford. And yet I must admit that the production of good literature and the continuing plague of illiteracy is one of the great contradictions existing in present-day Mississippi.

Studies have shown that 30 percent of the adults in the state cannot read well enough to fill out a job application. The dropout rate in schools is 40 percent, and public schools continue to rank at the bottom in scores made by students taking the ACT test.

That Mississippi is a paradox goes without question. The state is also an enigma. How can the illiteracy rate be so high in a state which has sent to Washington such respected and capable men as John C. Stennis in the Senate and G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery in the House of Representatives? In the world of grand opera, Laurel has given to the world Leontine Price and Meridian native John Alexander thrilled opera audiences from New York to Paris. Mississippian Kelly Brown danced his way into the role of featured dancer with the American Ballet Theater. Walter Anderson, Marie Hull, and George Ohr are well recognized in the art world.

Not only in the arts and literature has Mississippi produced outstanding individuals, but this is also true in the fields of sports, motion pictures, medicine, law, business and politics. So, this brings us to the question: If Mississippi has a pantheon of accomplished individuals in all these various fields, how is it possible for illiteracy to be such a problem in the State?

The answer perhaps lies in the past, in that distant time when cotton was king and Natchez boasted more millionaires than any other city of comparable size in America.

Oliver Emmerich in his book The Two Faces of Janus says, "Cotton has been both a blessing and a curse, but more curse, by far, than blessing. The most sinister curse which cotton has bequeathed to Mississippi is what is often called a 'cotton patch' philosophy, a philosophy of backwardness."

It is true that thousands of African Americans were needed in order to provide a labor force capable of planting, tending and harvesting the vast cotton plantations of the Delta. This labor force was necessary from pre-Civil War days until the mechanization of farming which took place after World War II.

Planters were not interested in educating this labor force, only in how much land they could break in a day and how much cotton they could put in a sack between sunup an sundown.

In the hill country "share cropping" and "farming on halves" were the systems employed in the cotton economy. Those who were engaged in this type of farming operation often kept their children home from school in order to work in the fields and a lackadaisical attitude toward the importance of education was born.

Even in pre-Civil War Days those in Mississippi with money were prone to send their sons to northern universities and preparatory schools rather than enroll them in the state's schools, academies, or colleges. Even today, many old established Mississippi families send their sons and daughters to universities and colleges outside the state.

Skepticism also plays a role in the problem of illiteracy in Mississippi. Those of us who live in the state seem to ignore the advice of the English writer Alexander Pope who said, "Be not the first by whom the new is tried, nor yet the last to lay the old aside." For years, the state resisted school consolidation even when it became apparent that the cost of introducing new technologies into the schools would be prohibitive unless consolidation came about.

Resistance to change in Mississippi has a long history, but there are other factors which are a part of our society which affect education. economics, social attitudes, social structure, demographics, and even history probably affect Mississippi schools more than in any other state.

Not until the people of this state come together and realize that although the state produces internationally recognized writers, we must also be a state in which the ability to read is recognized as being essential to progress.