February 22, 2013


If you'll look carefully in the upper left hand corner of this photo taken at the Old Schoolhouse Museum in Mary Esther, Florida, you will see a dunce cap sitting on a small child sized chair.  The docent at the museum provided me with a very thorough paper that reviewed the origin of the dunce cap.  Here it is in a nutshell:

Today, the word "dunce" refers to a dull-witted, stupid person, incapable of learning.  A dunce cap was usually made of paper and schoolchildren were forced to wear it as punishment for being stupid or lazy.  The term "dunce" derives from the name of a person:  John Duns Scotus.  He was a very influential philosopher-theologian of the High Middle Ages who lived from 1266 to 1308. He advocated wearing conical hats to increase learning similar to those worn by wizards.

As so often happens over time, the teachings of Scotus fell out of favor and were ridiculed and despised.  The conical hat became a symbol of ignorance instead of a symbol of learning.  By 1577, Scotus's name had been transformed into "dunce".  The first recorded reference was a "dunce table" provided for duller or poorer students in the 1624 play "The Sun's Darling" by John Ford.  The term "dunce cap" appeared for the first time in the 1840 novel "The Old Curiosity Shop" by Charles Dickens.

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