The Audacity of Expelling Hope

Expelling Hope: The Assault on Youth and the Militarization of Schooling
By Christopher G. Robbins
Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: SUNY Press (2008)
ISBN13: 978-0-7914-7505-8

[E]ducation, a linchpin in the climb to the top, is a function of wealth, not the other way around.
— Christopher Robbins

On 5 November 2003, 107 mainly Black students arriving in the early morning at Goose Creek High School in Stratford, South Carolina were in for a surprise. Seventeen police officers with guns in hand and an unleashed search-and-sniff dog descended upon the students The officers slammed and locked doors, and — aided by school personnel — blocked the hallways. The officers forced students to the ground, cuffed others, “and performed dubious search and seizure for 40 minutes.” Nothing was found — “not even cigarettes.” A school spokesperson said it was just “coincidence” that later arriving mainly White students watched the events.

This scene described in Christopher Robbins’s book, Expelling Hope: The Assault on Youth and the Militarization of Schooling, exemplifies the policy of zero tolerance that pervades much of American public schooling.

Eastern Michigan University professor Robbins tells the reader that zero tolerance grew out of Navy punishment of substance abuse by its members. In public schools it punishes violent and non-violent behaviors similarly. The professor points out that zero tolerance seeks to weed out and publicly punish trouble-making students and “instill fear in the rest of the group while maintaining a fragile institutional consensus by hiding the social and structural conditions of the behavior.”

Robbins argues that zero tolerance scathes all youth both academically and socially. But the obvious targets are non-White youth. One way zero tolerance does this, writes Robbins, is “shift[ing] the concerns from structural issues to those of behaviors allegedly endemic to poor, urban African American and Latino youth, legitimating the general loss of educational opportunity that results from iniquitous funding schemes.”

Racism, charges Robbins, undergirds zero tolerance, which creates a link between public schools and the juvenile and criminal justice system. Although Black youth represent a significantly higher proportion of the incarcerated population, statistics indicate that they do not account for a significantly higher rate of reported violence.

Robbins states that zero tolerance ignores the conditions that plague many youth, such as poverty. This is not surprising since right-wing ideologies underlie zero tolerance: neoliberalism with its appeal to the market and neoconservatism with its appeal to patriotism and militarism.

Writes Robbins,

Zero tolerance is not simply the effect of possibly ignorant adults who misunderstand the data on youth violence; it is not simply the social policy of ill-spirited adults who carelessly toe the line of pejorative media representations of youth; it is not simply another devastating practice of top-down corporate models of school governance. When democracy and the threat of neoliberalism—the authority of the economic and its cultural politics—are used in analyzing zero tolerance, the policy is seen as all of these things, together, as a symptom of the whole way of life in the United States at this point in history.

Eliminating violence from schools is, purportedly, a zero tolerance objective. However, Robbins questions what is violence. He cites Brazilian educational theorist Paulo Freire who held that violence, at its core, was the prevention of a person or group’s learning experience and hindrance of social interaction: a denial of humanity. Zero tolerance is violence charges Robbins because it dehumanizes the Other.

Robbins also delineates two curricula at play in zero tolerance: the hidden curriculum and the not-so-hidden curriculum. Educator Henry Giroux defined the hidden curriculum as implicit codes of conduct understood by students through the rules of the structure of education and its system. Writes Robbins, “In its most extreme forms, the hidden curriculum works as a push-out mechanism for unwanted students.”

The not-so-hidden curriculum operates to suspend or eliminate citizenship, and it threatens the destruction of the preconditions for all students to learn.

To effect this change a shift has taken place emphasizing the hiring of security officers in schools, the purchase of invasive monitoring devices, and implementation of invasive procedures — such as locker and body searches.

The upshot, says Robbins, is “that schools have become more effective at eliminating the prospects of citizenship rather than enhancing the conditions fundamental to the construction and process of democratization.”

Schools have also undergone a militarization through such programs as the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and the Troops-to-Teachers. Poor schools, in particular, are targeted by military recruiters.

Another concept that Robbins challenges is that of color blindness, that inequality among races can exist in the absence of racism. Through such postulation, color blindness neglects the conditions that led to race-based inequalities. It ignores slavery, loss of language and culture, crimes inflicted on people of color, ghettoization, incarceration, etc. Robbins holds that “color blindness attempts to erase, from public discourse and decision-making, the social relationships and economic conditions that make individual acts of racism possible in the first place.”

Neoconservatism and neoliberalism lead to increasing militarization, incarceration, widening income and wealth disparity. For neoliberalism, “zero tolerance is a primary weapon in the low-intensity warfare of social exclusion inflicted on students and youth of color.” Robbins connects zero tolerance to a democratic deficiency, social isolation, and even to the War of Terror.

Robbins calls for people to exert their democratic rights, a reprioritization of public funding. He also calls for “hope, a critical, educated hope, must be the guiding force and binding element between the related projects of reconstituting the democratic legacy of public schooling and the promise of a democratic future.”

Youth represent the future. Zero tolerance, however, calls to mind George Orwell’s dystopic future of “a boot stomping on a human face forever.” Just as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four warned of an ugly future, Robbins’s Expelling Hope warns that zero tolerance is here now.

Robbins appeals to the reader’s intelligence. An important and informative book, Expelling Hope is backed by plentiful statistics and references to relevant literature. Moreover, Expelling Hope has an important message; it calls upon conscience: to struggle for all members of society because we all lose when any one among us is harmed.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Read other articles by Kim.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. rg the lg said on April 22nd, 2009 at 9:16am #

    I have to say that I actually agree, mostly, with this. Rare enough … but the thought that MUST follow … and the one that I suspect most people will avoid thinking about is: how did this come to be?

    I suspect it is for the same reason we don’t make waves … because we are afraid of the tenuous hold we have on what matters to us … wealth, or the appearance of wealth … at the cost of all else.

    RG the LG

  2. Michael Kenny said on April 22nd, 2009 at 12:52pm #

    There is a much broader, worldwide, phenomenon which has been going on for a few years now which might be called the “war on youth” of which this is just one facet. It reminds me very much of what went on in the 1960s when the “old fogeys” thought that they could simply force the youth of that day to conform to their standards. I don’t see why the old fogeys of today, who, oddly enough, are sometimes the very same people who marched in the 1960s, will be any more successful. Every generation builds its own vision of the future in its own way. Those of us who have now reached old fogey age need to have the breadth of vision to accord to the young of today the rights we claimed for ourselves when we were their age.

  3. lichen said on April 22nd, 2009 at 3:52pm #

    It is ridiculous to talk of violence in american schools today without recognizing that in 21 states it is still legal for teachers and administrators to beat students. Over 223,190 primarily male students were violently assaulted in this manner by teachers and administrators at US schools in 2006-2007. This, coupled with the rampant violence at home that is also especially prevalent in these states (especially texas) shows that children’s rights are being violated in many ways, and that the maximum security schools are just one symptom, and something that needs to be replaced with an entirely new model.

  4. Don Hawkins said on April 23rd, 2009 at 4:09am #

    I sent this to CNBC this morning

    How was your Earth Day? I watched Obama’s speech and a start not the people of Earth speech yet. I noticed Fox News didn’t cover that speech but instead was still doing trailer think. Glenn Beck yesterday on his show took a energy saver light and had somebody break it on the streets of New York. Is it just me but it seems Fox News is moving into the darkside in so many way’s. Oh Beck then had on the guy from junk science nice touch if you enjoy insanity. Now on the Nightly News Brian did a report on the oceans in the South that seem to be in not real good shape moving a tad bit fast the destruction of the eco system. Then the Larry Show calm and at peace not exactly very hard to be calm at peace when you lie to yourself it’s in the book. He had on John Harwood who said that cap and trade will be political hard to pass. What does that mean? Then he had on James Inhofe that was just on Glenn Beck that said the Earth is cooling and cap and trade will hurt poor people a tax on poor people such a humanitarian. Kind of like Bush and company remember those pictures out of Iraq? Then on CNBC Reports this one guest talked about how rich people are coping with the downturn. She said many are going to move to Africa and I guess because this whole no rules just right thing didn’t work out to well for them and now in the States all those tents and the way people act and maybe a few rules not good off to Africa. Yes these rebels are a different group all right. Anyway from the looks of the Oceans heck we don’t need any old dumb tax on carbon it will only hurt poor people and listen to your leaders and watch your parking meters and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain with that pocket full of cash.

    Granite charades are played in the rain
    Till we fall through a sand castle window
    To avoid the pain
    Summer canoe paddles up to you
    ‘Cause it’s time for another beer run
    Or something that’s equally true

    Then we call to the man who walks on the water
    We talk of a plan to stop all the slaughter in view

    Then we call to the man who walks on the water
    We talk of a plan to stop all the slaughter in view
    It’s in view

    Yes by all means Glenn break those light bulbs and Mr. Inholf keep worrying about poor people and Larry stay calm and at peace and off to Africa to avoid the pain or is that Iceland. It’s in view alright. How will it all play out so far not well. A new way of thinking could be helpful don’t you think.