The Primordial Substitute Teacher – Neoliberalism, Racial Capitalism, And The Ideology Of “Students First”, Part 3 (Thomas Joyce)

The following is the last of a three-part series. The first can be found here, the second here.

The Subject Supposed to Put Students First

Philosopher Campbell Jones’s analysis of recycling offers an excellent analogy for putting students first. Jones examined the statement “today we are supposed to recycle,” and asked the question “but who is the ‘we’ of this moral imperative? Who is the subject who is supposed to recycle?”. The ‘we’ of the question is the subject who interiorizes guilt. Walter Benjamin wrote, “capitalism is presumably the first case of a religion that does not atone but produces guilt.”

Recycling requires the interiorization of guilt by the consumer, so they take responsibility for the proper disposal of refuse. However, this guilt raises the next question Jones seeks to answer, “Why should I, who am so little in control of production and distribution processes, have to choose [to recycle]?”. The transference of guilt holds the subject responsible for the actions of the Other, in this instance the companies that manufacture products. 

Jones concluded that, “‘the subject supposed to recycle’ more often than not means the economic system supposed not to recycle, or more forcefully, the economic system supposed to not recycle.” The subject has little control over how the product is made or distributed, but the onus of ethical responsibility remains on the subject, not the Other nor the system the Other represents.

In the same way the subject has little control in the recycling process, teachers have little control to actually put students first. The education system under neoliberalism is the education system supposed to not put students first. Instead, the guilt of failing students is transferred onto the teacher. The teacher here serves the role of what Zizek identified as the “primordial substitute.” The best example offered by Zizek of primordial substitute is canned laughter. Canned laughter laughs for the subject, allowing the subject to relax and not act.

The teacher becomes the primordial substitute who cares and puts students first for a system that actively hurts students. This transference onto the teacher subject is necessary because it masks the failures of neoliberalism. Furthermore, it creates “responsiblization” on the part of the teacher. It depicts teachers as having control over a system where in reality teachers have the least amount of power to put students first.

As illustrated in the earlier sections, the teacher subject cannot offer the remedies for neoliberalism and racial capitalism because the issues are inherent to the system. However, students first provides guilt for the teacher and the transference of guilt for everyone else. If the teacher cares enough, has enough relentless pursuit, sacrifices job security, and so on, then the system is absolved.

Educational reforms create an increasingly untenable situation in schools, so the teacher takes on more of the responsibility for those systems. As Zizek asserted, “the system only can function if the cause of its malfunction can be located in the subject’s guilt.” The teacher absorbs the guilt and responsibility for the education system, so the system can function.

The Big Other

The teacher subject serves as the primordial substitute for others, the site of guilt transference, but within their daily practice teachers experience the disconnect between the rhetoric of students first and the Real. Appearance is essential to the function of an ideology, and students first provides the appearance. This ideology shapes the images and discourse to conceal the Real, but it can never fully do so because the Real always returns as a symptom. Ideology is not a false consciousness. Often ideology is thought of “as they know not what they are doing, but they are doing it.”

However, the correct expression of ideology is “they know very well what
they are doing, and yet they are doing it.” Arguably, few teachers actually believe that standardized testing and test prep is actually putting students first, yet they still teach in a way structured by testing. The importance is not whether the subject believes the ideology, but that the subject maintains that the Big Other believes. The role of the Big Other in education is to provide the “collective fiction” of putting students first.

According to Fisher, “the Big Other is the collective fiction, the symbolic structure, presupposed by any social field.” Zizek used the example of Really Existing Socialism (RES). The people living under RES and the government officials knew that it was “shabby and corrupt,” but the Big Other was “the one deemed not to know… Yet the distinction between what the Big Other knows, i.e. what is officially accepted, and what is widely known and experienced by actual individuals…the discrepancy between the two that allows ‘ordinary’ social reality to function.” The belief that someone is putting students first even if the immediate policies perpetuate racial and class inequality is necessary for the ideology to function.

In a lecture at the European Graduate School, Zizek stated, “we all need a naïve Other who believes.” There are numerous examples of the creation of this other in teaching. Teachers are shown videos and stories of teachers who go above and beyond. The teacher motivational video “What Teachers Make” by Taylor Mali exemplifies the naïve Other par excellence. The poem is about a teacher, presumably Mali, at a fancy dinner party where a lawyer asks him what he “makes.”

The derogatory question is meant to denigrate the teacher guest. The teacher responds with a list of emotional responses he evokes from students. These feelings seek to establish the sacrifice in material wealth is exceeded in the emotional joy of teaching. Zizek would identify this as the jouissance of ideology, the pleasure in the pain of conforming to an ideology. Mali’s slam poem exemplifies an anecdote from Zizek’s The
Sublime Object of Ideology of the suffering mother.

The mother takes care of all of the family’s needs. She is “mercilessly exploited,” but her “silent sacrifice” is her identity because it serves as the mother’s “imaginary identification: it gives consistency to her self-identity- if we take this incessant sacrificing from her, nothing remains; she literally ‘loses ground.’” The mother is willing to sacrifice everything, except the sacrifice itself. However, freedom from exploitation comes in liberating herself from the sacrifice. She must sacrifice her sacrifice.

Mali’s teacher subject constructs themselves the same way. What they “make” is an enduring sacrifice for emotional gain which is superior to the economic gain of the lawyer host. Sacrifice is the identity. If the sacrifice of the teacher is taken away, that is the teacher sacrifices their sacrifice, then they no longer can be a subject who puts students first.

The teacher who puts students first, who refuses to sacrifice their sacrifice, is essential to neoliberalism. Neoliberalism requires teacher turnover in order for teachers to be replaced by a stream of inexperienced and inexpensive teachers. This is necessary to drive down costs, but it is also necessary to create failing schools in need of reform. One of the few reforms suggested by NAR that has not been tried is increasing teacher salaries in a serious way.

As Harris and Herrington noted in their literature review of the implementation of NAR’s policies, “there may be little hope of genuinely improving teacher quality in low-performing schools without greater resources and efforts to combat the harsh working conditions that have been shown to be the primary factors leading teachers to leave these schools.” The neoliberal reforms are driving teachers from the profession because that is structurally how neoliberalism operates. For example, the increased stress brought on by audit culture is linked to teachers leaving the profession or retiring early.

The individualism created and emphasized by neoliberalism is antithetical to closing the opportunity gap. The teacher-supposed-to-sacrifice in order to raise student achievement is unsustainable for an extended period of time.

Rather than address economic conditions, students first creates a “managed heart.” Managed heart is a termed coined by Russell Hochschild during his study of service workers. Management wanted workers to internalize the company’s beliefs and display the proper emotions. Hochschild’s focused on commercial workers and presented an overly simplistic view. However, the conceptualization of management’s control over a worker’s feelings for exploitation is similar to the teacher’s experience.

Hochschild identified two types of ways employees showed emotion. Surface acting required the worker to portray emotions without feeling them, whereas in deep acting the worker displays emotions while not realizing it was an act. In teaching, this surface acting leads to teacher burnout, as teachers are forced to subsume their real feelings in order to display surface acting. The images that construct the teacher subject subsumes the Real to the surface acting of students first.

As companies sought to blur the division between home and work, they witnessed an increase in employee turnover. What Fleming and Spicer identified as “high commitment organizations” with “managed cultures” lead to “not only the personal time of employees that is appropriated by the company, but also their identities, a process… ominously labeled the corporate colonization of self.” This “colonization of self” led to an increase in neuroticism and burnout.

It is hard to imagine a higher commitment organization than a students first school, especially as schools are increasingly modelled after businesses. This ideology structures the teachers’ colonization of self, and this mentality is one of the key factors to teachers leaving the profession. To return to the video on students first from the introduction, the idea that teachers should only have to work a set number of hours was considered not putting students first.

Poverty is an excuse overcome through responsiblization. This ideology creates the conditions for teacher attrition, especially when combined with low pay and the expansion of what is considered economic issues (student behavior, family stress, etc.).


Neoliberalism, racial capitalism, and the education reforms they produce fail to follow through on their claims of closing the opportunity gap. Students first embodies the ideology of neoliberalism and racial capitalism. It allows for the segregation, exploitation, and dispossession of marginalized communities. It does so by constructing a teacher subject whose existence is predicated on sacrificing. Responsibilizing the individual teacher to overcome the impact of capitalism serves only to absolve and deflect blame from organizations with the power to close the opportunity gap. Segregation and poverty cannot be overcome by well-meaning teachers.

Framing the conversation this way ensures that teachers’ “relentless pursuit” will be in vain. The reforms seek to create schools without teachers, where a series of well-meaning interchangeable adults are paraded in front of the most vulnerable populations. These teachers will likely leave the profession within five years, leaving students who are often behind with another inexperienced teacher. This is necessary for the system of exploitation to work.

In philosopher Alain Badiou’s The Pornographic Age, he argued that democracy is our fetish. Real power lies in what is hidden behind the images of contemporary democracy. The same can be said about students first. Behind the fetishization of students first lies the real power. Not the individual power of the teacher, but the true power of the vulture philanthropists, the hedge fund manager, the reform organizations like TFA, the district administrators, and the politicians.

Badiou continued, “since the idea of revolution has disappeared, our world is merely that of the resumption of power, under the consensual and pornographic image of market democracy.” Similarly, the revolutionary capacity for closing the education gap has disappeared, and all that is left is the consensual and pornographic image of marketplace school reforms with the guise of students first.

Education reforms push a “comfortable capitalism for all: a capitalism with a human face. Nothing will emerge from these chimeras.” The market cannot put students first, and the ideology of students first reifies the structures of poverty and racism. Students first is a necessary ideology as it reimposes the world of images and symbols to obscure the Real. The Real is class struggle, and teachers access to the Real, to limitations and failures of capitalism, creates the potential for a new revolutionary consciousness.

This is why the teachers are at the forefront of the labor movement in 2020. The recent waves of teacher strikes attest to the reemergence of the Real. The Real cannot be folded into the symbolic order. The Real has the possibilities of reorienting the teacher subject away from putting students first, and towards a solidarity with the students and communities where they work. Students first is necessary because it orients teacher subjectivity towards sacrifice, individualism, and responsiblization. The teacher subject must sacrifice their sacrifice and face the Real.

Thomas Joyce is a high school social studies teacher in the Denver public schools system and a doctoral student at the University of Denver.

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