Academia as an aesthetic has seen a rise in popularity — especially in America — throughout recent years, although the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society certainly contributed to this increase. And while on the surface, academia is a lovely aesthetic (who doesn’t want to sit by the window while it’s raining, reading poems by Oscar Wilde, wearing tweed jackets and thick-framed sunglasses?) It is also steeped in classism that contributed to the historical imperialism of British society, and currently contributes to the divide in modern British society, setting most of the population at a disadvantage and is the basis for most discrimination and inequality that people in this country face, more so than in any other country.
The aesthetic of academia isn’t just appreciating literature. It has also been known to romanticize the private school system, as well as the upper class in general. However, romanticizing private schools in any way is inherently damaging. There is a long history in the UK of privately educated students having extreme advantages over publicly educated students — most of whom are generally working class — while private schools are filled with the middle and upper class. This mostly comes from wealth — middle and upper class people tend to be able to afford either private school or private tutors, while the working class usually cannot afford anything beyond public education — but also from the country as a whole.
The UK government is almost entirely made up of privately educated middle and upper class people, and as a result, they lack the experiences of the working class (which make up a vast majority of the country). Rather than help to support these people with the correct resources, the government deliberately keeps them down in order to demonstrate the upper class mentality that being poor (which tends to be synonymous with being working class, at least in the eyes of the government) is simply a case of moral failing. This then suggests that working class disadvantages are the fault of the person rather than the system that has been set up against them from the start.
A fantastic example of this, which has only recently come to light due to the pandemic, is the exam system within this country. GCSEs and A-Levels are our main exams, and as a brief synopsis, they are multiple papers on different subjects such as English language, English literature, maths, biology, chemistry, and other non-core subjects such as geography or history. They require years of studying throughout secondary school (middle/high school) and can be very hard to pass — without the correct resources.
These resources tend to come from private tutors or teachers, and therefore privately educated students are at an immediate advantage to pass these, and in turn, are most likely to attend university and receive both a degree and a high-ranking job. During the pandemic, however, these exams were cancelled, and a new system came into place where students would be given “predicted grades” from their teachers, based on their performance in mock exams and in class.
Naturally, you can imagine how biased this system can be, especially from a class perspective. There was a clear result showing that privately educated students had a far higher passing rate (A/A* grades) than in state (public) schools, with Zarah Sultana MP stating on Twitter: “A Conservative government - whose Cabinet overwhelmingly went to private school - put in place a grading system that unfairly benefited private schools but trashed the hopes of thousands of working class students. Be in no doubt, this is about class.”
This year’s A-Level results (which were also determined by teachers rather than actual exams) were shown to have a 70% pass rate (A/A* grades) for independent (private) schools, and only a 40% pass rate for state (public) schools.
Another very interesting thread from Stan Cross on Twitter goes on to state:
“Private education allows the rich to pay for their children’s advantage over the poor… it’s about paying to ensure the children of the poor remain disadvantaged, relative to your child… private education cannot exist without class inequality, and it will keep on reproducing class inequality until it’s abolished.”
And this is exactly what Dead Poets Society romanticizes. Despite Welton Academy being set in America, with the film being based more on the American middle and upper class, it still has very real repercussions on the class system in the UK that is continually discriminating against most of the country — because private education and the study of literature is very much a romanticized version of British life. But the education system that is so loved by American teens contributes to the oppression of POC, LGBTQ+ folks, women, and many other groups that face discrimination.
For example, the UK is an extremely diverse place, with a number of different communities, such as Asian communities, Jamaican communities, Polish communities etc. and a lot of these communities do live in very poor conditions, for a number of reasons, and because your class tends to be determined by wealth and education (although this isn't always the case), these communities are also considered to be working class, and therefore face even more disadvantage and discrimination than they already do.
Private schools also contribute to the sexism and gender inequality in the UK, as a lot of top private schools are specifically for boys, with a few only recently opening up their upper years to girls. I remember watching a video of an American teenager explaining the dark academia aesthetic to their audience, and one of their points claimed to be that the aesthetic is linked to queerness because of gender separation of private schools. However this separation is purely misogynistic, with men being at a greater advantage of receiving top education compared to their female counterparts, solely on the basis of them being male. So I balk at the suggestion that the blatant sexism is linked to LGBTQ+ history.
Speaking of LGBTQ+ history, I’m sure many people have started to become aware of how prominent TERF ideology is in the UK due to a certain British author, and it is true that we have more trans-exclusionary feminists in this country than in any other, but here’s another interesting statistic: the majority of these TERFs are privately educated middle and upper class women. Which is actually a small number compared to the rest of the population, but because of the education divide, it’s this small proportion of women that are afforded the loudest voices, due to their unfair advantage in education and class. Because of this, they are more likely to acquire government positions, media positions, and other high-ranking, influential jobs; thus easily spreading their transphobic propaganda. It is no coincidence that the most prominent TERFs in the UK are middle/upper class: “It has become increasingly common for upper-class white people to express anti-trans views.” (from an article titled J.K. Rowling’s transphobia is a product of British Culture by Katelyn Burns).
Another, very informative, article titled “Where J.K. Rowling’s Transphobia Comes From” by Grace Robertson talks about how prominent transphobic and TERF ideology is in media and journalism jobs in the UK, stating that “one study estimated that 94% of British journalists are white, with another study finding that over half come from private schools.”
A large proportion of the UK disagree with TERF ideology, but these people have no opportunity to speak out — and a lot of these people are LGBTQ+ folks — because they were disadvantaged from the beginning.
Moving away from education for a moment, the class divide is drilled into the heads of young British children from an early age. Working class children are made to feel inferior to their middle and upper class counterparts from every aspect of their daily lives, whether it be teachers telling them to change their dialect and speech patterns, to the TV shows they watch with mostly middle and upper class actors/voice actors. Middle and upper class people are seen as more respectable, more intelligent and more trustworthy. Working class culture is regularly mocked by both the upper class and the rest of the world, with America seemingly very fond of mocking British people who don't pronounce the “t” or drop the “h” or say “innit”. These speech patterns are working class, and by mocking them, you are contributing to classism, as well as mocking the British “cuisine” such as beans on toast, or “chip butties” (fries that are placed inside a bun like a burger), all of which are “poverty foods” originating from the working class, and which have always been used against working class people by middle and upper class people as an excuse to discriminate.
I should quickly add before concluding , I am not against people watching and enjoying content and movies such as Dead Poets Society. There’s nothing inherently wrong with liking — even loving — it. Hell, even I quite enjoy it, mostly because I love Robin Williams. But the issues within and the context within which it is set does have to be understood, appreciated, and kept in mind.
The class system is as prominent today as it has always been, and with the rise in popularity of the academia aesthetic, this is seemingly not going to change any time soon. As a writer myself, and an avid fan of literature, prose and poetry alike, I completely understand the allure of the academia aesthetic, and I myself enjoy it on a surface level. There is absolutely nothing wrong with curling up on a windowsill and reading The Picture of Dorian Gray with a nice cup of tea. If anything, I encourage it. But please do not romanticize private school life the way that it is romanticized in Dead Poets Society. Please be mindful of the damaging and classist undertones that the academia aesthetic originated from, and definitely do not link it to things like queer history, as a way to celebrate it.
Relevant past article from JUVEN.
is a young, British writer. Part of the LGBTQ+ community, he focuses mostly on writing fictional stories and poetry, but regularly writes non-fictional posts/articles about political issues such as classism and queer history.