Dark Academia: Promoting Equality or Elitism?


Silhouette of a library staircase. Photo from Pixabay and Pexels, Free to use (CC0).

Ivy-covered stone buildings. Dusty leather-bound books read under candlelight. Blazer-wearing students studying the Classics. Archaic rituals held in eerie forests at midnight.

These are all images that are associated with the aesthetic, dark academia, a concept that romanticizes the pursuit of knowledge, journeys of self-discovery, and an overall thirst to learn. Beyond these topics, as the name suggests, the aesthetic also involves “dark” aspects, typically in the form of death and moral corruption. 

The aesthetic itself has been gaining popularity ever since the beginning of the pandemic because of online platforms such as Instagram and Tiktok. During a time when in-person school appeared to be a distant reality and the online world was inescapable, it is not surprising that an aesthetic honoring the appeal of traditional institutions, such as Cambridge and Oxford, and older technology, like typewriters and quills, would gain a large following. 

Although commonly represented in fashion, with images of earth-toned plaid skirts and chunky knit sweaters, the dark academia aesthetic is rooted in literature. The creation of the dark academia sub-genre is often attributed to Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel The Secret History, a tale of a group of Classics students at Hampden College, a prestigious liberal arts college in Vermont, whose “morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs” ultimately propels them to be responsible for two deaths.

The Secret History paints a picture of enticing academia, only to later uncover the nefariousness and elitism beneath the surface. Initially, because the group is composed of academically-driven perfectionists, they become enamored with the idea of completely losing control. In their opinion, “beauty is terror” and thus there is nothing more beautiful than returning to the primitive, animalistic idea of humanity. This outlook leads to the murder of a local farmer during their recreation of a Bacchanalian festival. In response to the event, one member of the group, Henry Winters, comments that he “prefer[s] to think of it as a redistribution of matter.” This initial murder reveals a fatal flaw of the intellectual world and those within it — the danger of masked elitism and detachment.

Dark academia’s inspiration primarily stems from European education in the 1800s and elite American institutions, focusing on subjects of Greek, Latin, and rhetoric. Because of the all-white casts these books have typically portrayed, authors have recently started challenging older dark academia novels including The Secret History. For example, Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé released her YA novel, Ace of Spades that follows two Black students at the prestigious Niveus Private Academy, who are being targeted by an anonymous group called “Aces.” The novel unpacks the discrimination and institutional racism that runs through America’s system of elite education. 

In response to the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal, author Alexa Done wrote The Ivies. The book focuses on a group of five students at Claflin Academy, whose ultimate goal is to get into an Ivy League school by whatever means are necessary. This story is relevant to the ways in which some American families use their power, money, and cunning to ensure their child’s college acceptance. 

In a world that is constantly changing and striving towards a better version of itself, the media we consume should also reflect that evolution. Although alluring because of its free-thinking, experiential idea of education, it is important that dark academia content is held accountable for its lack of diversity and elitism, just as schools across the United States are beginning to address JDEI in their own communities. Despite its shortcomings, there’s an important message to take away from dark academia — a greater appreciation for one’s education.