Dark Academia, the “Western Canon,” and the Decline of the Humanities

by Spencer McDaniel

In around mid-July, I found out that there is apparently a huge internet “aesthetic” movement called “dark academia” that centers around a highly romanticized impression of what humanities scholars and students—especially those in the fields of classics, English, history, and philosophy—dressed and lived like in the twentieth century. Aspects of the aesthetic include wearing old-fashioned, dark-colored, stereotypically “academic” clothing and appreciating “classic” literature, art, and music.

For those who aren’t already aware, I am currently about to enter my senior year at Indiana University Bloomington double-majoring in history and classical studies (i.e., Ancient Greek and Latin), with honors in history. My current plan is to apply to graduate programs in ancient history later this year. Even though I don’t deliberately dress in a dark academia style and I don’t identify with the aesthetic in any particular way, being a humanities student does make me feel like I have a connection to it.

I was so struck by my surprise discovery of dark academia’s apparent popularity that I’ve spent a good part of the past two weeks researching it and its history. Naturally, I have a lot of thoughts, especially about how the current popularity of the aesthetic seems to be at least in part a reaction to the slow ongoing decline of the academic humanities.

Three major inspirations of “dark academia”

Before I talk about what dark academia is, I think I should mention a few of the media sources that have inspired it. The aesthetic draws inspiration from a wide array of different works of literature, film, and television. You can read a long list of works of media that are associated with dark academia on the fandom page about it, but I think that three specific works of media have played especially influential roles in shaping the aesthetic as it exists online today.

The earliest of these is the 1989 teen drama film Dead Poets Society, which is set in the year 1959 and is about a group of students at the fictional elite, all-male boarding school Welton Academy who are inspired by a charismatic English literature teacher named John Keating (who is played by Robin Williams) to form a secret, illicit club known as the “Dead Poets Society.” The members of the club meet in a cave, where they read works of poetry together, including works by famous poets as well as their own original compositions.

Many of the most prominent themes of dark academia are already fully present in Dead Poets Society. First, there are the visual themes; the film is set at an elite boarding school during the mid-twentieth century, so, naturally, all the characters dress in boarding school uniforms. Most of the film was shot on location at St. Andrew’s School, a private Episcopal boarding school in Middletown, Delaware, which is built from gray brick, with colonnades and Gothic Revival elements.

The film also, however, captures a lot of the other themes of dark academia, including the value of “classic” literature and a humanistic education, forbidden activities, rebellion against authority, secret societies, existentialism, death, and emotional trauma.

Scene from the 1989 teen drama film Dead Poets Society of the boys meeting in the cave where they discuss poetry and literature together

The second earliest of the three works of media that seem to have played the most influential role in inspiring dark academia is the novel The Secret History by Donna Tartt, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1992. This book has earned a reputation as the definitive dark academia novel because it so thoroughly encapsulates so many of the themes associated with the aesthetic. At 576 pages, it’s a rather thick volume, but the writing style is very engaging and I was able to speed through it fairly quickly.

The narrator of the novel is a classics student named Richard Papen who transfers to Hampden College, a fictional elite liberal arts college in Vermont. After moving to the college, Richard finds that he is not allowed to take any classes with the Ancient Greek professor Dr. Julian Morrow, because the only people Dr. Marrow allows to take his classes are a hand-picked clique of five students who have little interaction with anyone else at the college, all of whom but one are soon revealed to be extraordinarily wealthy. The first chapter of the novel describes the appearance and clothing of each of the five students in great detail.

Richard manages to ingratiate himself with Dr. Morrow’s favorites by helping a few of them with their Greek homework. The students give him tips for how to win the professor’s favor and Dr. Morrow allows him to start taking his classes. He spends more time with Dr. Morrow’s other students and, in time, he becomes the sixth member of the clique.

The plot thickens when the other students in the clique attempt to recreate a Dionysian Bacchanalia in the woods without inviting Richard and end up murdering a farmer. (At first, the murder is claimed to be accident, but this is later called into question.) The murder leads to a downward spiral that results in one member of the clique getting murdered by the others, another member of the clique committing suicide, and the clique itself disintegrating.

The Secret History is clearly intended as a biting critique of elite values and education and, by the end of the novel, all of the main characters are exposed as truly horrible people. Nonetheless, it portrays this world of erudition and decadence with such aesthetic richness that many readers have simply fallen in love with it. This novel is generally seen as having had a greater role in shaping the dark academia aesthetic than any other individual work.

The third major influence on the dark academia aesthetic are the Harry Potter series of children’s fantasy novels written by J. K. Rowling, which were originally published from 1997 through 2007, and the films based on them, which were released from 2001 through 2011. I imagine that most of my readers are well aware of the Harry Potter series, but, for those who are not, I will summarize.

The series is about a boy named Harry Potter who finds out that he is a wizard and goes to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a boarding school for the magical arts. The school is housed in a magnificent castle and all the students wear a set of black robes as their school uniform. Each book is centered around Harry and his friends trying to solve some sort of mystery and they often find clues in old books that they find in Hogwarts’ vast library.

Many of the people involved in dark academia today probably read the Harry Potter books and watched the movies when they were younger and have since been influenced by them. The series includes many major themes that have become part of dark academia, including mystery, secrecy, dangerous or forbidden knowledge that can be found in books, death, mental and emotional trauma, and forbidden activities.

MORE…

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