Dunce cap

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A young boy wearing a dunce cap in class, from a staged photo c.1906

A dunce cap, also variously known as a dunce hat, dunce's cap, or dunce's hat, is a pointed hat, formerly used as an article of discipline in schools. In popular culture, it is typically made of paper and often marked with a D or the word "dunce", and given to schoolchildren to wear as punishment by public humiliation for misbehavior and, as the name implies, stupidity. Frequently the 'dunce' was made to stand in the corner, facing the wall as a result of some bad behavior (see time out for a similar method without the humiliation aspect). Depending on the teacher, they might have to stand for as long as half an hour.[citation needed] Such a punishment was meant to rein in rebellious or disrespectful students and unite the class against misbehavior by making an example of the offender and forcing them to endure the collective scorn of their classmates for a set period of time.[citation needed] The hope was that no one would want to be labeled the "dunce" in the class, even for a short period of time, and would thus avoid misbehavior.[citation needed] Examples of behavior which could warrant the dunce cap included throwing spitballs, passing notes, or pulling of hair. Class clowns were frequently admonished with the dunce cap.

In modern pedagogy dunce caps are extremely rare, as most current educational systems consider behavior modification via public humiliation to be both excessively harsh and potentially psychologically traumatizing for schoolchildren, instead advocating systems of "praise in public, punish in private."[citation needed] In some districts, singling out a child for humiliation with the dunce cap (or similar methods) may even be considered criminal harassment or child abuse, exposing the teacher to termination of employment, lawsuits, or prosecution.[citation needed]

Although seemingly (and possibly initially) intended to punish the student with the lowest academic performance in the class (the "dunce"), such a use could hardly have been very successful, as pure punishment is incapable of increasing intelligence.[citation needed]

A very similar practice on the European continent was a paper headdress known as donkey's ears, as a symbol of 'asinine' stupidity.[citation needed]


The word "dunce" comes from John Duns Scotus (c.1266–1308), the Scottish Franciscan scholar who, with Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham, was one of the leading Scholastic philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages. Duns Scotus wrote treatises on theology, grammar, logic, and metaphysics which were widely influential throughout Western Europe, earning Duns the papal accolade Doctor Subtilis (Subtle Teacher). (Duns remains highly esteemed in the Roman Catholic Church, and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1993.) However, with the advent of the Renaissance and the New Learning, and then the Protestant Reformation, many of Duns's theories and methods (e.g. hair-splitting) were challenged or rejected by Humanist and Protestant scholars, who used the term "Dunsman" or "Dunce" in a pejorative sense to denote those who foolishly clung on to outmoded doctrine. (The form "Dunce" reflects the medieval pronunciation of "Duns".) Gradually "dunsman" or "dunce" was used more widely for anyone stupid or dull-witted.

According to Cecil Adams, Duns Scotus recommended the wearing of conical hats to stimulate the brain – so-called "thinking caps". (This notion is the likely source of the pointed hats traditionally worn by wizards, etc..) However, the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition) records that the term "dunce cap" itself did not enter the English language until after the term "dunce" had become a synonym for "fool" or "dimwit". In fact, "dunce cap" is not recorded before the 1840 novel The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens. John Ford's 1624 play The Sun's Darling is the first recorded mention of the related term "dunce table," a table provided for duller or poorer students.

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