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. 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.

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. It is likely it was used far more successfully 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. Since no one wanted to be labeled the "dunce" in the class social hierarchy, even for only a short period of time, it served as an effective deterrent to acting out.

In modern pedagogy dunce caps are extremely rare, as most current educational systems consider behavior modification via public humiliation to be both politically incorrect and potentially psychologically traumatizing for schoolchildren, instead advocating systems of "praise in public, punish in private." 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.

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


The word "dunce" comes from the name of the beatified Franciscan, John Duns Scotus, a Scholastic whose followers were called "duns" or "dunsmen". Duns Scotus wrote treatises on Catholic theology, grammar, logic, and metaphysics which were widely used as textbooks in the medieval British universities. As the English Renaissance began and the new learning superseded Duns Scotus' theories, his adherents obstinately refused to acquiesce. The word "dunce" then began to be used by humanists to ridicule the Scholastics, gradually acquiring its modern meaning.

Duns Scotus[edit]

King Philip IV of France wanted to tax the church in order to finance his war with England, but Pope Boniface VIII threatened to excommunicate him instead. Duns Scotus supported the pope and was banished from France, later taking up a university professorship in Germany. Those who disagreed with Scotus' teachings started referring to his supporters by the word 'dunce', which meant 'stupid or dull witted'. His books on theology, philosophy, and logic were university textbooks. His followers were later challenged by their opponents about what was perceived as a system of hair-splitting and distinctions; their obstinance over an increasing array of challenges posed first by humanists and then by reformers led to the term "dunses" to denote fools in part.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition), "dunce cap" did not enter the English language until after the term "dunce" was so transformed. 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; "dunce cap" appears first in the 1840 novel The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens.

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