Last night for the first time in a while I caught PBS's usually provocative and often superlative program "POV," which features independently made documentaries. The documentary being screened was Marion Lipschutz's and Rose Rosenblatt's "The Education of Shelby Knox," a superlative exploration of a young woman's dawning political and social activism. The protagonist is Shelby Knox, whom the viewer first meets as a 15-year-old self-described conservative Southern Baptist from Lubbock, Texas, who, like all high school students in Texas has received abstinence-only education, because in 1995 then-governor George W. Bush signed it into law (the documentary also notes that in 1996 "abstinence-only" initiatives received national attention when President Bill Clinton included grants for abstinence programs in his welfare-reform legislation).
Knox shrewdly notes that despite the abstinence pledges and the generally conservative and religious atmosphere in town fellow students are still getting pregnant and contracting STDs, and she also remarks that what is being called "sex education" by her charismatic pastor is anything but. The documentary then follows her active participation in Lubbock's Youth Commission, which for a while becomes the primary vehicle through which she and others press for real sex education; her political conversion; her affiliation, despite her conservative background, with gay students at her high school who are trying to gain recognition for a "gay-straight" alliance; her struggles with her fellow activists, including the head of the Youth Commission, and her parents (pictured above with her, at far right); and her personal trajectory as an increasingly open-minded thinker and agent of change.
Lipschutz and Rosenblatt treat their subjects and the related issues fairly and respectfully, and in a brilliant move, they turn much of the film over to Shelby herself. A compelling young woman with intellectual aspirations and horizons that exceed those of many of the adults around her, Shelby Knox reinvigorated my belief that even in the most retrograde and stifling environments people, and perhaps most hearteningly young people, can develop their own ideas and act upon them, despite the consequences. Against the stridently triumphalist rhetoric of the Greg Neumayrs of this country that a majority has bought into the Groupthink, fearmongering, myopia, and personality cultism that passes for public and political discourse in this country and that the rest of us who haven't should simply bend, bow and accede, POV and "The Education of Shelby Knox" show that even in the "red" cores of this country, there are those who refuse to simply follow, and instead think and act freely, no matter what the dangers or costs.