What is a Dunce Cap

The dictionary defines dunce as a slow learner or stupid person while a cap is a headgear. So basically a dunce cap is a cap which shows the wearer to be s stupid or dumb person. The dunce cap is typically conical cap made out of paper with a D written on it and given to schoolchildren to wear as punishment by public humiliation for misbehavior. A practice similar to this practice in Europe was Donkey ears where in large ears were placed on the erring students head. This practice was primarily aimed at disciplining the students but later came to be seen as punishment and hence abolished with the passage of time.

Though this is not often used in the present times but in earlier in the 20th century use of dunce cap and making the child stand in the corner of the class facing the wall was a typical punishment for students who did not perform well in the exams. These were to shame the students publically to pressurize them to perform better later. This practice was however brought to an end by the humanists as this tends to scar the personality of the child for good. In present context it is thought that children who are not performing well are the ones who need special attention.

The word “dunce cap,” comes from 13th century philosopher called John Duns Scotus, who was born in Duns, Scotland. He was a philosopher who coined new terms and insisted on subtle forms of learning and used strange methods. He was on path of conflict with the church and had to leave and take up teaching in Germany. He also taught in Oxford, Cambridge and was also the founder of new philosophy referred to as Scotism and the followers of Scotism were referred to as “Dunsmen.” These Dunsmen used to wear the caps to show themselves as the followers of the philosophy. The real reason, though, was the thought that wearing of conical caps increases learning. Later his philosophies became an object of ridicule and the word dunce became a synonym of stupid. This happened because the advancements in thought process and sciences leading to change in philosophies. Most of his followers resisted change in thought, leading to the association of slowness with dunces, and then idiocy. The earliest known use of dunce cap is in the late 19th century when even the term dunce table became popular where slower students were made to sit together.

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