Sunday, May 19Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

Dark Academia and the Elitism of Education

Search ‘#darkacademia’ on Instagram, Pinterest, or Tumblr, and you’ll be graced with pictures of candles, leather bound books, typewriters, handwritten letters, turtlenecks, and gothic architecture, all filtered through the same brooding colour palette. These images are representative of an online aesthetic movement which focuses on romanticising education through (ironically) a rejection of technology. Novels like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains, and movies such as Kill Your Darlings (2013) and Dead Poet’s Society (1989) all play a huge part in defining dark academia on the internet. Quotes, gifsets, and screencaps abound, and Daniel Radcliffe’s portrayal of a young Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings has been the subject of many fashion inspiration posts.

The culture of dark academia is largely centred around wealthy white people, often excluding people of colour in its romanticising of the elite education systems of yore. Historically, education was for rich white men who could afford to go to Oxford and Cambridge, like the Romantic poets whose morbid and scandalous lives the dark academia community is fascinated by – William Wordsworth attended Cambridge and Shelley, famously, was expelled from Oxford. The aesthetic’s focus on the classics, a sub-section of literature largely dominated by wealthy white writers, perhaps continues the historic exclusion of minority groups and working-class people. Not only has it chracteracterised the elite education system for centuries, but may now make people feel like they cannot be a part of the online community.

Romanticising private or boarding schools is another facet of dark academia, but these schools are obviously very expensive. Intellectual attributes have unfortunately typically been associated with having a high economic status because of how expensive elite education is. Even today, university is a huge investment, and many people who don’t have a safety net of wealth to fall back on shy away from the prospect of carrying around student debt for decades. The fees are so extreme that the House of Commons Library states that the government expects only 25% of current full-time undergraduates who take out loans to fully pay them back. The expense of higher education, even now, reduces people’s access to it; throwing private schools into the mix increases the price astronomically, yet thousands of people on the internet participate in this culture. Dark academia ignores the problems of classism and elitism associated with education, instead choosing to focus on the aesthetic joy of studying.

The pandemic and online learning has significantly boosted the dark academia community. Having to attend class online has, it seems, only increased the yearning for dusty libraries and studying in cafes. By turning their at-home workspace into a dark academia environment, students have motivated themselves to study, as dark academia focuses on education for pleasure rather than a means to an end. Perhaps then, despite romanticising an ideal of education which is firmly rooted in the white upper-middle class, dark academia is making education more accessible to people without these means. The movement is becoming more inclusive, going against what the aesthetic stands for in its origins, and many people of colour and people of all genders make dark academia content, like @cosyfaerie who has 336.9K followers on TikTok and 50K followers on Instagram. There are also TikToks and Reels which give cheaper alternatives to typical dark academia items, which helps to include people of all classes.

Ultimately, dark academia has exclusionary roots, and undeniably fetishizes a wealthy, white, and exclusionary aesthetic, but, as something which exists online for anyone to see, is becoming more accessible, and even encourages people to participate in typically inaccessible expressions of education.