OPINION: ‘Dark academia’ — an alternative take on education and privilege

A large wooden library is filled with books.
The dark academia genre can help dismantle the elitism of the classics, argues Yifei Cheng PO ‘24. (Courtesy: Rawpixel.com)


Almost everyone who read Harry Potter in their childhood must have wondered how marvelous their life would be if they received a letter of admission from Hogwarts. Indeed, it’s all too easy to become mesmerized by the enchantment and adventure that a Hogwarts student gets to experience. 

Although the imaginary allure of Hogwarts fades as they enter adulthood, the trope of the wizarding academy endures for Gen Z. This is because, apart from magic, Hogwarts embodies an idealized version of higher education where learning brings students perpetual awe and motivates them to pursue knowledge for its own sake. The empowering nature of magic drives the fledgling witches and wizards to seek enlightenment regardless of institutional boundaries. 

Ranging from exploring the cavernous library for arcane tomes to brewing restricted potions with mischievous friends, the protagonists take the actual initiative in their education, and their reckless measures only add to their charm. It’s no wonder why such an approach to education spreads beyond the fictional universe in the form of dark academia.

Dark academia is an internet aesthetic and social media subculture that presents higher education in a romanticized light. In general, adherents to the dark academia aesthetic seek to replicate for themselves the atmosphere of elite colleges of the 20th century and earlier, from which Hogwarts gained its inspiration. One may wear vintage outfits, decorate their personal space with Gothic-inspired trinkets, play classical music while studying and read renowned pieces of literature.

Stemming from The Secret History — a murder mystery involving several classics students at a prestigious New England college — the term “dark academia” originally describes the insidious relationship between privilege and higher education, but has now largely dropped this meaning. It is difficult to pinpoint what dark academia precisely stands for as an internet phenomenon, since it is the combination of a fashion choice, a style of interior design, a music taste, a general lifestyle and, to some extent, a philosophical outlook on the purpose of life and knowledge. 

Nevertheless, dark academia has several defining traits. For instance, it tends to idealize the humanities, celebrating their intrinsic value. In other words, the humanities to dark academia is magic to Harry Potter: humanities, with their soul-beautifying potential, are the ultimate pursuit for a student, just as magic is the ultimate pursuit of a wizard. This is evident in the fact that many content creators in the dark academia subfield frequently profess their passion for literature and the arts. 

Its aesthetic branch is synonymous with the dominant aesthetic choices of these institutions and the students there, or a fictional version thereof. Imagine a cathedral-like library, where someone is reading Inferno by the wavering light of an ornate candelabra while Beethoven plays in the background. This scenario is as close to a summary of the dark academia aesthetic as I can devise.

Though dark academia as an internet subculture has existed for over a decade, it gained traction only in recent years. As of now, classical music playlists labeled as “dark academia” have hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, and #darkacademia includes over 1 million posts on Instagram. During the pandemic lockdown, as stay-home college students sought to create an academic atmosphere different from their dull and isolated domestic environment, they turned to the internet for inspiration, and many found the dark academia aesthetic as a solution.

Besides superficial changes, such as redesigning their interior space to make it resemble an antiquated library or discarding hoodies for vintage outfits, adherents of this aesthetic often adopt the philosophical perspective of dark academia as well. Viewing the humanities as mind-edifying disciplines that foster critical thinking and expose themselves to the sublime, they become more interested in reading beyond their curriculum and engaging with classical texts, mirroring the behavior of most dark academia content creators. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this aesthetic trend can bring considerable lifestyle changes to individuals.

As dark academia becomes a substantial internet phenomenon, criticisms follow. Detractors to this aesthetic contend that by presenting the Western literary canon, classical music and Gothic architecture as the quintessential display of academic refinement, dark academia promotes a Eurocentric view of higher education that undermines diversity. While it celebrates classics and (English) literature as admirable disciplines worthy of dedicated pursuit, it seems to neglect other branches of humanities, especially those more detached from the Western scholastic tradition. 

Furthermore, its idealization of the humanities as the pursuit of pure, non-utilitarian knowledge might create discriminatory consequences, as it implies that learning other disciplines (such as business or engineering) for the sake of financial security is a rather unworthy endeavor. Combined with the prohibitively high cost of undergraduate education, this portrayal of academia may further the systemic injustices against low-income students that are still very much present. In essence, critics are concerned that the dark academia trope treats privilege as excellence and equates Western knowledge with true knowledge.

These critiques, while valid in relation to the superficial aspects of the aesthetic, are ultimately not applicable to the intrinsic message it conveys. Dark academia doesn’t uncritically idealize elite higher education but rather satirizes it for its exclusionary tendencies. The Secret History, for instance, describes the narcissistic depravity and unbridled elitism of its wealthy protagonists, who dismiss their murder of a “commoner” as a mere “redistribution of matter.” Knowledge, when monopolized by the privileged within an enclosed institution, grants them a false sense of superiority that fuels their condescension towards outsiders. This illusion of transcendence created by the exclusionary institution shrouds the soul in ignorance, rather than illuminating it. Hence the name “dark academia.” The name itself is a satire.

By calling themselves “dark academia” and incorporating the gatekept aesthetic of elite institutions into their daily lives, practitioners of the lifestyle are dismantling this elitism from within. They communicate a simple statement: you don’t have to attend an Ivy League school to study the humanities, or any subject for that matter. As more people realize that thrift vintage trinkets, online classical music playlists and second-hand poetry books can create an academic ambiance rivaling the actual “dark academia” itself, the elitist narratives surrounding higher education start to crumble.

Indeed, the dark academia aesthetic offers a democratizing outlook to knowledge in general. The key to enlightenment stems not from academic institutions, but from within a person’s mind. To make studying an act of self-fulfillment, one only needs determination, curiosity and the willingness to see knowledge as an intrinsically valuable goal. The DIY dark-academia-themed ambiance reinforces this mindset and reminds people that no matter where they are, knowledge can be sublime.

Yifei Cheng PO ’24 is from Nanjing, China. He enjoys hiking, reading (especially fantasy literature), and playing Starcraft 2. 

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