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.