Scott studied history at the University of Cambridge and is the host of an iTunes Top-100 daily history podcast. He is an award-winning history teacher who was nominated for the UK’s national Teaching Awards and short-listed for the BBC/Historical Association History Teacher of the Year award. Author of “366 days“. He currently lives in Romania with his wife and two children.
Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.
I live in Romania, and for the past two years I’ve made road trips with my family into the mountains of Transylvania. Driving the stunning Transfagarasan Highway is an amazing experience and a breathtaking journey. This summer we stopped off halfway up and climbed the 1380 steps to Poenari Castle (the ruined shell of a fortress built by Vlad the Impaler). Standing among the ruins of a medieval stronghold that was an engineering marvel, looking over a road snaking through the mountains that was one of the biggest construction challenges of the 20th century, made me marvel at the incredible abilities of the human race. We can try to tame the environment, but it still dwarves our achievements.
How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?
I think awe is the sense of being overwhelmed by something that is beyond the realms of experience or even imagination. I think wonder takes that sense of awe, which can be quite oppressive and scary depending on the circumstances, and adds the desire to share that feeling with others. As for curiosity, I think it can be sparked by both awe and wonder yet also be their greatest enemy. While I’m curious about things that are awesome and wonderful, I sometimes want to keep them mysterious.
What inspires you to be creative?
When you consider my answer to the previous question this will seem contradictory, but my own curiosity. Having found the secret to the thing that inspired my awe and wonder in the first place, I love the challenge of ‘reverse-engineering’ it and restoring that emotional response for people who engage with my own creations.
Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?
I’m terrible at keeping secrets, and I’m fortunate to have a wife who is happy to let me ramble on. I often monologue at her for hours as I refine ideas. After that I need a quiet space and a bowl of cereal, irrespective of the time of day. And a deadline also helps.
What do you love about magic?
The feeling of surprise and puzzlement. I’m fascinated by the interplay between fact and belief, and I enjoy the feeling of having my senses fooled in plain sight. Knowing that beyond these effects is incredible physical ability and dexterity that goes unnoticed – and is designed to go unnoticed – is particularly humbling.
What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?
A bad storyteller. A magician performing tricks without being able to tell or present a good story is good at clever tricks. The story, for me, is where the clever becomes wondrous as the magician takes you on a journey with them. The story doesn’t have to be verbal, however. Teller’s facial expressions and body language are highly effective storytelling mechanisms.
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
I think it’s sometimes hard to separate ‘new’ wonder from a nostalgia for awe we felt as a child. In this sense I’m specifically thinking of the wonder I feel at Disney theme parks. But I think new wonder comes by surprise, and in my sense comes from seeing the achievements of humans that go beyond the conventionally possible. The best wonderful moments are often those that we don’t expect, but this makes them incredibly challenging to create.
For some time you ran a project where you posted abandoned shopping lists with your commentary on their lifestyle choices. Can you tell me more about it? Previous interviewees have commented that a lot of their creativity comes from the mundane, is that true for you?
The Shopping List Compendium started as a distraction during a holiday, when I saw two abandoned shopping lists in trolleys at my local supermarket. Having scanned and uploaded them to a website with some tongue-in-cheek pseudo-psychological commentary it got picked up some major blogs and then the national press. I guess my commentaries were a creative outlet, but more than anything they were just an expression of my fascination with a seemingly private aspect of someone’s life. Shopping lists are mundane, but their ordering and content exposes huge amounts about our personalities. The project took on a life of its own when I decided to live for two weeks only eating food that was on abandoned lists. Whether that was creative or just stupid, I’m not sure. It certainly wasn’t scientific. Red salmon on ice cream wafers was ridiculous.
Your “Mr Allsop History” and now the “History Pod” channels on YouTube have proved to be very successful (especially with last minute crammers!). What have you learnt from producing an ‘on this day in history’ programme for every day of the year?
HistoryPod has been a really fascinating and valuable project for me. It’s vastly expanded my own historical knowledge, and equipped me with hundreds of stories that now get woven into my normal classroom lessons to illustrate points I’m making. In terms of what it’s taught me about the past, HistoryPod has left me convinced that there have always been human beings with those senses of awe, wonder and curiosity that you’ve been asking about. There have always been always people who pushed themselves beyond the realms of what is perceived to be possible, sometimes with catastrophic consequences, but always in an attempt to achieve something that seemed unattainable.
As for what it’s taught me about the public, viewing statistics suggest that people aren’t particularly interested in finding out about things that are unfamiliar to them. They much prefer watching videos about well-known significant cultural events from the second half of the 20th century than fascinating yet less well-known events and people. It makes me ponder whether most of us are actually more comfortable sticking within the world we know than being curious about the one outside.
If you weren’t a full time teacher, what would your dream job be?
I think the term ‘teacher’ can be used beyond the conventional idea of someone in a classroom with a group of students. My dream job always has been, and always will be, that of a radio or television presenter who uses the medium to distil and share knowledge to advance our understanding of the world. These conventional forms of audio-visual media, in which the audience is exposed to full narratives rather than narrowing their viewing/listening to materials within their comfort zone as on YouTube, are both powerful and incredibly important. To share my passions, and teach beyond the walls of my classroom, would be an incredible opportunity.