Beyond Dark Academia: The Real Horror in Magic School Is Systemic Inequality

Science Fiction and Fantasy are full of magic school stories, from contemporary and urban fantasy colleges to second world universities, private schools, academies, and boarding schools. Many of these tales contain horror elements, even if they aren’t monsters and mayhem through and through. Increasingly, these sorts of stories—especially ones set in some version of higher education—are getting branded as “dark academia,” an aesthetic that uncritically privileges a certain, exclusive sort of scholarly “life of the mind” and mixes that ideal with elements of mystery, crime, danger, and, well, general darkness. And that’s a problem.

There are compelling reasons for “dark” or “gritty” representations of college and grad school, even and especially in a fantasy setting. But as a subgenre, magic school stories tend to skip over those compelling reasons in favor of external monsters and villains. In the process, they miss the fact that the murderer isn’t just calling from inside the house—it is the house. Or, rather, it’s the ivory tower (and its self-appointed gatekeepers).

Think about the last magic school story you read or watched (yes, even if it’s that one) and you can probably identify some core elements of the subgenre: the school is attended by a privileged few; many of the students are legacies (i.e., their parents attended the school) or, at the very least, not first-generation; the protagonist is a first-generation student or very nearly so, and they struggle to adjust to the institution; the school ostensibly exists to provide career training (even in series where a magical high school diploma is the terminal degree); students take courses in distinct fields or areas of magic; and, there are faculty experts in those fields present to offer guidance and support (at least, in theory).

In other words, magic schools work a lot like real-world schools. And, as such, they’re built on some unstated assumptions about who and what schools are for…assumptions that are spelled out dramatically by recent studies about higher education:

In contrast to common representations of the student experience in fiction, an estimated 14-18% of students experience homelessness while pursuing their degrees, and three out of every five students experience basic needs insecurity.

Prior to the pandemic, higher education outlets were already reporting a mental health crisis among students as approximately 34% of undergraduates sought mental health treatment in 2019. During the pandemic, that percentage shot even higher, with approximately 50% of surveyed students screening positive for anxiety or depression.

We know that graduate students are at higher risk of mental illness due to exploitative labor conditions, a collapsed job market, and an often toxic and abusive advising system. And these issues extend to many faculty, as well. About 75% of all college faculty in the US are adjuncts, part-time or temporary employees who are often hired course-by-course, are meagerly compensated, have no way of knowing if their employment will continue into the next term or semester, and aren’t eligible for health benefits. In fact, in 2019, 38% of instructional staff experienced basic needs insecurity. And this is how academia treats the people it allows to remain inside its hallowed halls.

The ivory tower has, to put it bluntly, a whiteness problem. Black and Indigenous students of color (BISOC) make up approximately 45% of undergraduate enrollment in the U.S., but represent only about 33% of college graduates in recent years. And that one-third of graduates is actually deceptive, because it includes graduating Latinx students, who make up about 35.6% of the total undergraduate population.

These already low numbers dwindle quickly in grad school: about 20.4% of graduate students are BISOC, and about 9.2% are Latinx. (And these representation issues are even worse among faculty: only 14% of U.S. faculty are BIPOC.)

Disabled students also face significant barriers to retention and graduation. At least 19.4% of the U.S. undergraduate population, or 1 in 5 students, disclose having a disability. And approximately 25% of those students drop out within the first year of their program due to factors ranging from lack of support and resources to outright institutional ableism. A look at graduate school enrollment statistics reveals that only 11.9% of graduate students report a disability.

Oh, and, as of last year? 33.8% of college graduates hold jobs that don’t actually require a degree. (There is some data to suggest that only about 27% of people holding an undergraduate degree find a job in or related to their field of study.) And, whether or not they end up in a job that even requires one, students take on an average of $30,000 in debt to get their degrees.

All of these numbers should tell you three things:

  • higher education isn’t accessible or inclusive;
  • college isn’t necessarily or even normally a safe place, and graduate school is often even worse;
  • and it’s hard to know if the experience was truly worth it in the end (even though many graduates, myself included, would do it again).

But what exactly does any of this have to do with fictional stories about magical education? The short answer: everything. Or, it should.

Magic school stories are, at heart, about coming of age and coming into one’s own. Attending a magic school is supposed to be an essential stage of (or, perhaps, an essential obstacle in) the journey to adulthood and professional life. That’s true even when the magic school in question is a college or grad school. In the happy stories, the magic school is a door through which an exciting, fulfilling, and, well, magical future can be found. But very few magic school stories are happy or uplifting when they’re set in some version of higher education.

In the more-common, less-happy stories, attending magic school is revelatory, but not in a good way. The knowledge students leave with (about themselves and the world around them) is hard-won and not necessarily worth the cost. But even in these cynical stories, students somehow have a future to look forward to—one in which they get to keep doing magic.

In Naomi Novik’s The Scholomance series, for example, protagonist Galadriel (El) Higgins knows that if she lives past high school graduation, she’ll either find work as a maleficer of mass destruction or create her own path while resisting the dire tendencies of her innate magical ability. There is no future in which she is forced to leave magic behind, or to juggle part-time magic positions in a losing effort to keep a roof over her head.

And in Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, protagonist Galaxy (Alex) Stern finds herself attending an alternate, magical Yale University on a full-ride scholarship which, of course, has some serious strings attached. While struggling with coursework and not one but two hidden curricula, Alex discovers that the glamorous world of academic magic she finds herself in is corrupt to the core. At the bleak end of the novel, literally and figuratively battered and bruised, her focus has narrowed down to one thing: rescuing a fallen friend. But she’s also managed to make it through the semester with a passing GPA, so technically she’s still on track to graduate and get on with her life.

At the end of both stories, the characters are still students, doing their best to graduate while juggling their magical existence and their mundane studies. But while magic school stories like these explore the impact of magic on students, they don’t often explore the impact of scholarship on magic. It’s one thing to learn you’re a magician, it’s a very different thing to learn how to be a magician within an institution dedicated to the research and teaching of magic. Because you can bet that that system affects everything from ideas about who counts as a magician to what counts as magic. And you can also bet—as so many of these stories already make clear—that the system itself is broken.

So, honestly, it’s wild that even magic school stories about the brokenness and corruption of the system assume that graduates will successfully navigate that system and become fully-actualized professionals.

When you come of age in a broken system, the identity you crafted in school is rarely the one you get to occupy in professional life. And that’s assuming you’re admitted in the first place, able to stay enrolled, and have or obtain the support and resources you need to earn your degree—feats which the academy makes nearly impossible unless you are already familiar with the inner workings of the institution (via your parents or network), are independently wealthy, and are able-bodied enough to throw caution (or work-life balance) to the wind. Because, in reality? Schools, magic or otherwise, are almost always places of privilege that cater largely to the privileged, all while selling the myth that they are for everyone.

Take Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy in SyFy’s TV adaptation of The Magicians. A magic school located in upstate New York (because of course), it is considered to be the “premier institution for the study of magic in North America.” And with the word “pedagogy” right in its title, you’d think the school would be innovative about (or at least up-to-date on) the latest in teaching and learning research. Spoiler: it’s not.

Brakebills takes great pains to admit only the “right” students. And that, apparently, means students who are able to perform well on unexpected, timed exams meant to serve as a comprehensive “examination of … magical aptitude.” Students are provided no accommodations and no alternative ways to demonstrate their skill, knowledge, or talent. As someone who does learning design for a living, I can confidently say that this sort of exam isn’t well-designed to measure a student’s content-specific knowledge. Instead, it ends up measuring skills and knowledge that are construct irrelevant like time-management, familiarity with standardized testing, and the ability to focus in a noisy classroom environment. In other words, the exam isn’t measuring magical aptitude at all—it’s measuring neurotypicality and privilege.

This mismeasurement is exemplified by Julia Wicker, who fails the written part of the Brakebills exam. When Julia asks for another chance to prove herself, citing the fact that the test’s questions kept changing, she’s told that, whatever magical ability she may have once possessed, it’s clear she has none now. Her reply is, characteristically, acute: “Don’t you want students who make actual inquiry?” The blank look on the nameless administrator’s face says it all: Brakebills does not want that. Not one bit.

Because there are no other magic schools around, Julia is forced to become a “hedge witch”—scraping and stealing to access any amount of magic she can. As almost all of the students who do attend Brakebills have or affect wealthy and worldly lifestyles, the show becomes a tale of haves and have nots. The hedges, frequently more talented than enrolled students but pushed to the sidelines, serve as a sort of institutional boogie man, foils for all that is wrong in the magical world. But that’s not really a compelling narrative arc.

As much as the show sets up this great divide between magicians and hedges, the only things that seem to truly distinguish the groups are resource scarcity (hedges) and perceived lawfulness (magicians). Graduates of Brakebills go on to much the same sort of magical “careers” the hedges have—if vague gestures toward doing magical stuff in a way that supports, at minimum, an upper middle class lifestyle even counts as “career.”

So, the university system in The Magicians is failing more than just the students it rejects—it’s failing the students it admits and then expels, the students it trains and then forgets, the superstar students who never go on to become professors or deans in their own right because, hey, there are only so many positions in the world and they’re all already full. While The Magicians does a fairly compelling job of exploring what might happen when the institution doesn’t admit you in the first place, we don’t see much diversity of experience among enrolled students.

But this isn’t just a problem in The Magicians. It’s a problem in the subgenre. By presenting institutions of magical education as places where the darkness sometimes creeps in, instead of places designed to perpetuate systemic inequality, these stories imply that the institution, as well as the kids it supposedly trains, is ultimately alright.

We never explore what happens when your admission letter extends a welcome that’s not followed through by faculty, staff, or your fellow students because you don’t fit into the narrow ideal of what a student should be. Or what happens when the people who you’re trusting to guide you through this process are toxic or abusive or have earned tenure and simply don’t care anymore. We don’t learn what happens when, degree in hand, you discover that there are three full-time, benefited jobs in your field in the whole world, and hundreds or thousands of applicants for each of them.

I can tell you lots of stories about what you do in those situations when you’re a “mundane” student, some of them empowering but most of them disheartening or infuriating or gutting.

But if you add magic? I can’t think of many stories that engage these issues in a sustained way.

As journalist and historian David M. Perry recently tweeted (in response to the hype around Netflix’s The Chair), “we need good storytelling about power on college campuses.” This is especially true in SFF, where, as author and academic Malka Older points out, we have this possibility for “speculative resistance,” for imagining better futures by being intentional about the ways we’re making things up and avoiding the siren song of path dependency.

Dark academia is path dependent. It relies on our imperfect knowledge of academic institutions to create a dark fantasy nestled within the aesthetic trappings of a life of the mind that, for the record, was only ever possible historically because of intergenerational wealth built within colonial systems. While some recent SFF novels create powerful critiques of the corruption at the heart of magical education (Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, for example) and of the institution’s complicity in the exploitation and destruction of (minority, disadvantaged, first-gen, disabled) students in order to maintain the status quo (Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series), there’s so much ground left to cover.

If we want to imagine better, more magical futures we need to go beyond dark academia to grapple with the real and urgent issues of systemic inequality in higher education today: student debt, the academic mental health crisis, ableism, precarity and houselessness among students and adjunct instructors, exploitation, exclusion. Adding magic to schools doesn’t erase or invalidate these issues; it amplifies them. Magic is as much about power as it is about wonder, after all, and education is as much about control as it is about creating possibilities. Mixing the two together is more than “dark”—it’s a frighteningly effective recipe for more precarity, more exploitation, more abuse. Magic stories are not only missing an opportunity when they fail to engage with these issues, they’re also endorsing and replicating centuries’ old systems of power, privilege, and control–systems that won’t change until their real horrors are finally recognized.

Courtney Floyd survived grad school by writing about magic. Her fiction has appeared in Fireside Magazine and Tales of the Talisman, and her lighthearted horror audio drama, The Way We Haunt Now, is available wherever you get your podcasts. You can find her online at www.courtney-floyd.com and on Twitter @cannfloyd.

Footnotes

citation

Back to the top of the page

27 Comments

This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.