Dear Straight Dope:
It all started when someone asked why Kate Bush was wearing a "D" on a cone-shaped hat in her "Sat In Your Lap" video and has now turned into my quest to learn the origin of the dunce cap and why it was used in classrooms. One site claims these paper cone hats where put on women accused of witchcraft (this same site claims Joan of Arc was wearing one when she was burned at the stake). This doesn't explain why cone hats were used in the first place nor when/why American teachers started putting them on students with below-average grades. Help me, Unca Cecil, you're my only hope!
SDStaff Gaudere replies:
You know, when I was just a little ‘un, my mom told me a story about a school of monks who lost an “intellectual battle.” She said they wore “dunce caps” and that”s why they are considered a symbol of stupidity. I never found any other reference to this tale while growing up, though.
Isn’t it amazing when you find out your mom was right all along?
Still, there’s more to the story than she let on. The “dunce cap,” and the word “dunce” itself, comes from one man: John Duns Scotus, or “the Subtle Doctor,” born in 1266 in Duns, Scotland (hence his name). He was considered a master philosopher in the late middle ages, coining such oblique terms as “haecceitas” — literally, “thisness.” (I’m keeping that one in mind for my next Scrabble game.) He taught in Oxford, Cambridge and Paris, and founded the school of Scholastic thought called Scotism, whose followers were referred to as “Dunsmen.” In an almost certainly apocryphal tale, shortly after he was made Abbot of Malmesbury his students stabbed him to death with their pens for “trying to get them to think.” [Insert your own joke about “the pen is mightier than the sword” here.]
His teachings were respected until about the 16th century, when they were attacked by reformers and humanists as being sophist and needlessly complex. The Dunsmen (or Dunces) rallied against the attack (their name was by then already associated with “hair-splitting-ness” and specious reasoning), but all their struggle against the “new learning” only made their name synonymous with “idiot.”
Poor Duns has gotten a pretty bad rap that none of his fellow Scholastics had to suffer through. The problem seems to be a tendency to favor extremely subtle and indirect reasoning that makes fellow Scholastic Thomas Aquinas seem accessible by comparison. Still, modern scholars think that the permanent association with stupidity is a bit much and are looking at his teachings with new interest; he was even beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1993.
What does this all have to do with those silly pointy hats?
Well, one of the more mystical things Duns accepted was the wearing of conical hats to increase learning. He noted that wizards supposedly wore such things; an apex was considered a symbol of knowledge and the hats were thought to “funnel” knowledge to the wearer. Once humanism gained the upper hand, Duns Scotus’s teachings were despised and the “dunce cap” became identified with ignorance rather than learning. Humanists believed learning came from internal motivation rather than special hats, and used the public shame of having to wear a dunce cap to motivate slow learners to try harder.
So, Mom, you were right on this one. But I still don’t know if I buy that eating my bread crusts will make my hair curly.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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