It is a strange irony that heroes and villains have retreated from the classroom just as they’ve become ubiquitous in popular culture. Outsized personalities may be disappearing from social-studies textbooks and college history departments, but they live on in airport bookstores and bestseller lists. On YouTube, amateur historians dissect great battles and famous generals with an enthusiasm usually reserved for secondary Game of Thrones characters. Half-forgotten dynasties populate obscure Twitter feeds. Eccentric historical figures are now fodder for rambling podcast episodes.
Great-man theory has long been out of favor with universities, where structural explanations — class, race, geography, gender, and the like — put Hannibal and Napoleon to flight decades ago. Ron Chernow and Robert Caro, two authors who still produce decidedly old-fashioned historical biographies, are notable for both their success and the fact that they have backgrounds in journalism, not academia. Slowly but surely, a pedagogical approach that emphasizes structural factors over individuals is marching through our institutions. California’s proposed new high-school history curriculum is awash in race, gender, and class buzzwords. The New York Times’ 1619 Project, a monomaniacal reinterpretation of American history through the lens of slavery, comes complete with a high-school teaching guide.
Yet banishing biography and personal drama from the classroom hasn’t suppressed our collective fascination with the great figures of the past. It has merely displaced their study to the Internet, where unfashionable, disreputable, and downright offensive ideas live on forever. Far outside the realm of respectability lies the alt-right, which has enthusiastically appropriated the iconography and heroic pose of various historical figures, from Crusaders to Victorians to the statesmen and generals of classical antiquity.
Describing an amorphous Internet subculture is a tricky proposition, but outsiders are starting to notice the alt-right’s historical fetishism. Paradox Games provoked a fan backlash when rumors leaked that it would scrub “Deus Vult!” (God Wills It) from an upcoming installment of the Crusader Kings franchise because of the phrase’s association with white nationalists. Donna Zuckerberg, a professor and editor of the online classics journal Eidolon, darkly warns that “radical online conservatives” are now championing Homer. According to Milo Yiannopoulos, “attempts to scrub Western history of its great figures are particularly galling to the alt-right.” It is difficult to penetrate the 17 levels of irony surrounding Bronze Age Pervert, a twitter personality whose self-published manifesto has found a surprisingly wide audience, but his followers are clearly interested in historical drama. Episodes of the Pervert’s podcast have covered ancient migrations, Charles of Anjou and the Sicilian Vespers, and Greek colonies in Bactria founded by Alexander the Great.
The appetite for narrative history is not confined to right-wing fever swamps. A longing for old-fashioned heroism is almost palpable among the online Left, where the iconography of the early Soviet era — chiseled workers and farmhands brandishing tools, figures such as Lenin and Trotsky rallying the proletariat — has made a comeback. In the course of a blistering critique of the Times’ 1619 Project, the avowedly Trotskyist World Socialist Web Site straightforwardly defends “the democratic revolutionaries of the 18th and 19th centuries” (in other words, the Founding Fathers) from anachronistic moralizing. The popularity of period dramas, history-adjacent fantasy sagas, and hefty biographies from the likes of Chernow also suggests an enduring fascination with great men — and great women — that transcends ideology.
It is probably not a coincidence that the shift away from great-man history coincides with a widening academic gender gap. Boys are typically more restless than girls in the classroom. Teaching the heroes and villains of history is one way to enliven an otherwise dry subject for fidgety young men. And introducing Homer or Julius Caesar in school is preferable to leaving impressionable boys at the mercy of Internet-addled autodidacts. History’s leading men are surprisingly resilient. Having been driven from the classroom, they simply resurfaced online, where famous battle scenes become Twitter avatars and screen grabs of obscure historical texts get passed around like contraband in a high-school lunchroom. The lure of secret history and “disreputable” knowledge, combined with the drama and action inherent to any historical epoch, has proved irresistible to a certain subset of disaffected young men.
Teaching the past with a dash of narrative drama is more than just another way to liven up a dull lesson. Such an approach also imparts vital truths about the importance of contingency and character in human affairs. Structural factors such as race and gender are important and worthy of classroom exploration, but history without its leading men and women is not only dry and colorless, it’s also incomplete. If McClellan had defeated Lincoln in the presidential election of 1864, or George Washington had been more ambitious during his second term, American history would look very different. We pay academic homage to history’s heroes and villains (as well as its ambiguous characters) not only because they’re interesting, but because their influence was often decisive. A narrow-minded focus on any single explanatory factor, structural or otherwise, is more than just boring. It’s bad history.