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Dark academia: how institutions fail learning

The main critique of dark academia is its centralisation of cultural and economic privilege.

The daydreams we conjure are often escapist, attempting to actualise what we subconsciously recognise to be missing. 

The first time I read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, my daydreams were haunted by the woollen plaid blazers and wire-rimmed spectacles of dark academia for some time afterwards. What interested me was not just the colour palette and textures, but the base thirst for knowledge free of concern for employment prospects or grades. It was so contrary to my own studies, dictated by exams and assignments where it seemed my marks would determine both my future and my personal worth. But reading Norse mythology in library books and scribbling unremarkable poetry in my Notes app without the daunting awareness of an upcoming exam, I found I didn’t actually hate studying — I hated the anxiety that surrounded it. In it’s romanticisation of study, learning, and academic culture, dark academia had exposed the emaciated corpse of modern institutions of education.

The shutdown of in-person teaching and shift to online learning models saw a marked rise in fascination with dark academia not just as a visual aesthetic, but as a subculture with its own core beliefs. There was renewed passion for seeking knowledge and learning just for the sake of it. Therein lies the reason for its current prevalence in popular culture — while coronavirus-safety measures may have been unavoidable, a recent wider assault on education has resulted in the devaluation of knowledge unless it can be used to generate profit. The steady blossoming of dark academia in the student imagination reveals a deep disillusionment with these models, and a longing for a space free to learn unencumbered by a neoliberal agenda.

The adoption of neoliberal models in universities prioritises profit and seeks to churn out job-ready graduates who can contribute to economic growth — nevermind being centres of knowledge for self-enrichment or fulfilment. Systemic wage theft and the increased casualisation of academic staff undercuts the quality of teaching to protect the bottom line, while the recently instated Job-ready Graduates Package pits students against each other as products in the marketplace. This new legislation only institutionalised the condescension Arts students have been subject to for a long time. We are looked down upon because our degrees don’t appear to prioritise the generation of capital post-graduation; if I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked what my English major is for I’d earn more in a fiscal year than former Vice Chancellor Michael Spence. Subjects central to the dark academia preoccupation like literature, languages, theatre, and philosophy are also at the centre of a war waged against education: the proposed restructuring of the School of Literature, Art and Media that would potentially see the Departments of Theatre and Performance Studies and the Department of Studies of Religion axed here at USyd; the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UTS also faces similar threats of restructuring; and Macquarie University’s Gender Studies Program was only narrowly saved after student outcry. These disciplines are crucial to critiquing the epistemologies that underpin systems of oppression in society, and they are prized in dark academia for their ability to enlighten their students, empowering them to critique these structures and aid their abolition.

The main critique of dark academia is its centralisation of cultural and economic privilege. Visually speaking, it is distinctly European and is interested in Victorian or Classical literature, higher learning institutions historically being only available for the affluent. But the fundamental ideals it embodies — namely passion for learning and the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake — are not inaccessible. The structures that dark academia revolts against contribute heavily to the inaccessibility and elitism in universities and wider academia that it is often criticised for idolising. Deeply entrenched racism analyses subjects through the lens of whiteness and favours the work of white academics. Australian universities are no longer free to attend and HECS-HELP leaves graduates in debt, while courses traditionally less viable in the post-graduation job market become more expensive to pursue and publishers hide papers behind paywalls, privileging knowledge to those who can afford it. 

These systems are not idolised by dark academia. Though Gothic architecture may be pleasing to the eye, the visual aesthetic of dark academia is not it’s sole component. It’s foundational beauty is that learning for learning’s sake, for self-enrichment, can be applied to any discipline. You needn’t feign interest in Classical literature and Shakespeare, nor subscribe to the institutions of classism, racism, and colonialism that universities are historically built upon to be a dark academic — immerse yourself in the formal innovations of Indigenous poetry, pour over histories of cultures less studied, devour well-thumbed novels from the public library, and let your ink-stained fingers smudge the pristine blankness of a Spirax notebook as you hastily transcribe your thoughts. There is nothing but you and the page.