Ad lucem: Academia’s apparition in societal imagination

Illustration of a person in a lavish, ornately decorated school library.
Aishwarya Jayadeep/Senior Staff

Related Posts

The grind never stops — nor, it seems, does the presence of school in the products of collective societal perception. 

Academia conjures a motley assortment of images in the eyes of its many beholders; caffeine-guided all-nighters, verbose readings and a hefty price tag accompany its promises to dilate minds and equip the workforce with skill. To most, it’s a necessary evil framed in weighty textbooks and precarious grades, a sentence of study sessions punctuated yearningly by an anticipated graduation. Interestingly, however, the public fixation on scholarly establishments often has less to do with banal truths than its varnished veneers. 

Schools inhabit a peculiar space in the schema of modern life. When expressed in media, there’s a certain degree to which they embody the crystallization of youth, epitomizing a gilded distortion of adolescent experience. Though often fraught with exaggerated perceptions and apparent conflict, the regimented schedules that these institutions afford students juxtapose dynamism against constancy and stasis. It’s a tantalizing dichotomy, granting public imagination the youthful illusion of control and containable discord. 

Perhaps this weaponization of established routine is what makes the academic backdrop so conducive for reinforcing functionality. The systems of authority and structure inherent to scholastic institutions render them incredibly favorable to hinging fictive order and worldbuilding on, particularly in the realm of fantasy and science fiction. It’s an inexhaustible trend across the contemporary book market that spans decades: the Hogwarts of 1997, for example, finds evolution in the newly-published, TikTok-viral Alexandrian Society of Olivie Blake’s “The Atlas Six.” 

When drawing back the veil of fiction, the rose-tinted baubles with which one ornaments the concept of school are no less prevalent. The “studyblr” era from 2014 was particularly salient, the pastel dregs of which have evolved into more palatable academic garnishes: themed Notion dashboards, study-with-me YouTube videos and the digitally eminent dark academia trend. Reporter Kaitlyn Tiffany observed that studyblr’s irrepressible obsession with pristine layouts perpetuates an “enviable precision” that oftentimes underpins aesthetic over action, relying on beautification for pleasure.

The aesthetic enhancement of academia isn’t merely a subset of romanticization — it’s something to commodify. Beyond the benign exterior of calligraphy-adorned notebooks and elegant Gothic libraries that glamorize the tedious act of studying, there’s an economic element to infusing schoolwork with ardor. Latent beneath such practices lies the implicit necessity of intertwining passion with productivity, a concept that’s become as pervasive in the modern world of side hustles as it’s been in the historical construct of the American dream. 

Such phenomena have resulted in what journalist Adam Davidson calls “the passion economy,” the phrase that titles his most recent book. It describes the recent shift of workers transitioning from corporate jobs to self-employment, from monetizing labor to capitalizing off creativity. Content creator Alice Cappelle noted in a YouTube video that “ultimately, the popular appeal of the passion economy is a search for meaning,” suggesting that our embellishment of academia is as much an attempt to self-actualize as it is a facet of an evolving urban workforce. 

More than its diffraction as an instrument for fictive allure and commodified aesthetics, perhaps most disconcerting is academia’s tendency to eulogize unattainability. There’s something enticingly unreachable about the insularity of private schools à la “Gossip Girl” and the captivating rarity of Matilda-esque prodigies. Academic exceptionality therefore arms fictional protagonists with a layer of individualism rooted deeply in the public eye, attaching the metric of unique character to the vindication of elite institutions. After all, how can “The Kissing Booth” spotlight Elle Evans if she’s not an incoming Harvard freshman? 

The exclusionary streak in educational institutions is nothing new — nor is it entirely fictive. The coveted seats in the long-standing pantheon of the Ivy League are just as rooted in reality as the barriers to education worldwide, the outstretched past of which has historically barred educational access for globally marginalized groups. The modern appeal of academic exception thus sprouts from a precedent of confining scholarly pursuit to society’s most privileged players, using its associations with wealth and power to foster fascination. 

The silver lining? Not all school-centric works of media lack awareness about the elaborate complexities, perspectives and deficiencies of academia. Breakout novelist R.F. Kuang’s Sinegard Academy is razed to the ground in 2018’s “The Poppy War,” ending a lengthy past of catering to aristocrats. Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” satirizes the pretentiousness of an impenetrable university Classics program, while at the end of Elif Batuman’s “The Idiot,” Harvard freshman Selin Karadağ says, “I hadn’t learned anything at all.”

The perception of academia is thus an ever-dynamic one, subject to the whims of fluidity and history. Yet, more than that, it invites its participants to imbue it with value that is distinctly extracurricular. It offers retreat while drawing proximity close by portalizing reality into escapism, allowing society to keep its fantasies unassailable to impossibility. 

Contact Esther Huang at [email protected].