"Schlaraffenland", the German Arcadia.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Regarding the Dunce Cap

The other evening my 10 year old daughter called my 8 year old son a dunce. Like most siblings, insults between them are routine, but I was surprised by the use of the word "dunce". I had assumed that it had long ago quietly dropped out of modern English usage along with other quaint insults such as "nincompoop" and "dunderhead".

Duns cup helps with concentrationThis then got me thinking about dunce caps. For those of you too young or too innocent, dunce caps were tall conical hats with a "dunce" or simply "D" written on them that especially slow or misbehaving children were forced to wear while seated on a special stool in the classroom as a kind of shaming. Although I was in grade school long enough ago to have had a school principal who actually kept a leather strap in his desk drawer that he was not only legally permitted to use on children but positively encouraged to, I was at least a couple generations too late for the dunce cap.

So where does this curious custom come from? The word dunce itself derives from the 13th century Franciscan monk and great philosopher, John Duns Scotus, who in turn is named after the town of Duns in Scotland where he was born. His followers were known as "Dunsmen" or "Dunses". Scotus was also known as "the Subtle Doctor" and his philosophy was so subtle as to be exceedingly difficult to follow. Regardless, it remained well respected and even popular until the 16th century when it came under heavy attack. The Dunses were derided as hair-splitters and eventually lost favour. In the process their name became associated with idiocy. So far, so good, eh? Dunsmen = Dunses = dunces = idiots. But what about the funny hat?

Here then is the interesting bit. John Duns Scotus believed that wearing a tall cone would allow knowledge to flow down to the wearer's head, with the pointy bit representing the pinnacle or apex of knowledge. Dunsmen consequently wore them and the hats too became, perhaps not unfairly, associated with idiocy. Duns also theorized that the hat would help the wearer focus. Fast forward 700 years and dyslexia researcher Ron Davis decided to try putting pointy conical hats (presumably not calling them dunce caps) on dyslexic children. He then asked them to concentrate on the unseen point above their heads and gave them something to read that they had previously been unable to. You know what's coming next. Yes indeed, the pointy hat wearers could now suddenly read.

John Duns Scotus was sainted by Pope John Paul II in 1993.

I wasn’t looking for trouble, it came looking for me

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