“Today I’m going to be giving an introduction and a guide to ‘Dark Academia’ as an aesthetic,” says Ruby Granger, a popular study and lifestyle YouTuber, introducing a video she uploaded in November 2020. She proceeds to showcase handwritten wax-sealed letters, perform candlelit readings of Oscar Wilde and drink tea to Tchaikovsky, while modelling collared shirts, tweed blazers and tartan skirts, and recommending Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and the 1989 film Dead Poets Society.
The “Dark Academia” trend, which emerged on Tumblr in the mid-2000s, has during the past 18 months exploded on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, with Google reporting a 4,750 per cent rise in searches for the phrase between the start of the pandemic and the spring of 2021.
Part fashion trend, part lifestyle cult, it seems decidedly outdated in 2021. Its fashion revolves around the style of students at elite Western universities in the 1930s and 1940s, exemplified by Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings, and its culture is embodied by the character Mr Keating in Dead Poets Society and his passion for literary education.
The pandemic has played an important role in the trend’s recent surge in popularity. As students worked from home instead of at school, many yearned for a tangible education instead of their remote classes. Dark Academia venerates ancient bricks-and-mortar institutions and aligns with the “main character” TikTok trend of romanticising one’s own life, making it the perfect escape for frustrated members of Gen Z.
But the rise of Dark Academia might also be a reaction against the gradual devaluing of humanities subjects in the post-2008, market-focused education system. In the UK and US, education has followed the trajectory of neoliberalism; as the late Mark Fisher put it, “the energy of this society is, ‘How can I make money?’” With the steady rise in tuition fees in the US and UK, students are forced to see higher education solely as a means to make them more attractive to the market in order to get a job. Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are seen as the most employable, while the humanities are derided as vacuous, as illustrated by the Department for Education’s recent 50 per cent cut to university arts and humanities funding.
Dark Academia revolts against this way of thinking, its adherents longing for education to be life-affirming rather than market-affirming. As Granger says, “Knowledge, and the pursuit of knowledge is a gift… something desperately beautiful and exciting.”
Of course, celebrating the traditions and prestige of these academic institutions can be problematic. For all their academic and historical grandeur, many of the picturesque buildings of universities such as Oxford and Yale have racist colonial histories. Sarah Burton, a fellow at City, University of London, who has lectured on Dark Academia, has called its favourite institutions “bastions of Eurocentrism”. This is echoed in Dark Academia content on social media, which often portrays a single stereotype: a skinny, white, bookish student. No wonder, given that the fictional members of exclusive clubs such as Keating’s class in Dead Poets Society and Professor Morrow’s elite classicists in The Secret History can hardly be considered diverse. Nor are they particularly mentally stable – a fact worth keeping in mind when considering how the race to get into these revered institutions in real life can be disastrous for many students’ mental health.
The trend’s source material is itself outdated. The films and novels that inspire it come predominantly from the 1990s or early 2000s, giving Gen Z a nostalgic and romantic view of a period when the humanities were still valued and funded to a greater extent than they are today. Gen Z needs its own programmes, films and books that romanticise knowledge and learning as it is today, and address the current crisis of education while insisting that academia is for everyone. Dark Academia shows, as Burton says, that this is a generation “full of imagination, curiosity [and] creativity and one perfectly capable of coming up with its own stories and illustrations”. There’s nothing wrong with romanticising education, so long as the power of learning is accessible and attractive to all.