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What is a Dunce Cap?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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A dunce cap is a conical paper hat, frequently marked with either the letter “D” or the word “dunce,” and formerly used as a method of punishment through public humiliation in classrooms. Students who were slow, lazy, or considered to be stupid were forced to sit in the corner of the classroom with a dunce cap, often on a high stool after being punished physically as well. In some schools, the slower students would also be separated out to a “dunce table,” so that they would not interfere with other students. In most modern schools, students who have difficulty learning are identified as needing special attention, and are usually referred for further evaluation rather than being humiliated.

The history of the dunce cap is quite interesting, as the cap was originally worn by a group of esoteric philosophers. This cap is related to a 13th century philosopher, John Duns Scotus, native to Scotland. Scotus' philosophy was extremely complex and difficult to comprehend, but he had a loyal band of followers who came to be known as Dunsmen. In the 16th century, advances in philosophical thought led to a general rejection of the teachings of Scotus, and his followers, the Dunsmen, were ridiculed. The term “dunce” came to be synonymous with “idiot.” Many of his followers resisted advances in thought, leading to the association of obstinateness and slowness with dunces, as well as idiocy.

The Dunsmen wore the conical dunce cap because they believed that the hat would enhance knowledge. The idea of an apex or point representing the pinnacle of knowledge is common to many societies, and Scotus also believed that the hat would funnel learning down to the wearer. These dunce caps were probably made from felt or other rigid materials so that they would not sag or list as they were worn. While it may have started out as a symbol to be proud of, the dunce cap began to be used as a method of public humiliation, because of the negative associations with the Dunsmen.

Beliefs about education have radically changed since the 16th century, when humiliating students in front of the classroom was believed to be beneficial or amusing. The use of dunce caps persisted through the early twentieth century, along with corporal punishment for misbehaving students. The dunce cap is infrequently used by modern educators, however, although it does appear in popular culture in the form of cartoons, books, and jokes.

BeautyAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a BeautyAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon122299 — On Oct 27, 2010

I think children need to learn humility. Yep kids get teased and yes there are bullies. But kids need to learn that sticks and stone may hurt my bones, but names can never hurt me.

I was teased as a kid. You know what? I learned to roll with it. I learned how to think on my feet. I learned how to deal with it. I learned how to not take life so seriously.

Stop catering to the weak and the stupid. And stop taking the authority away from educators. If a kid is acting out give them the authority to do something about it. If embarrassing the student with a dunce cap works, more power to them.

If you have a dunce for a child, stop trying to blame others for their behavior. Stop trying to force the world to cater to disruptive children. As a parent, it's your job to make that child be better than you.

Sorry for my rant. I'm just sick of our world catering to dumb people. By no means do I believe I'm smarter than others, but if you get burned by spilling hot coffee on yourself, you are to blame -- not the coffee or the person who served it.

If a child gets in trouble at school, don't blame the teacher. Blame the student or yourself.

By anon62905 — On Jan 29, 2010

I think having a dunce cap in all schools would be the greatest thing ever. Teach those kids some manners.

By anon39118 — On Jul 30, 2009

Could this be the origin of the old saying "Put your thinking cap on?

By anon30842 — On Apr 25, 2009

Teasing and bullying need to be stopped in schools.

By anon30829 — On Apr 25, 2009

I wasn't the greatest student growing up in the '60s. It was mostly the result of laziness on my part, but it was also because of being teased for being "too smart." Believe me, the kids are quite content to bully and harass anyone they think is "dumb". All the dunce cap does is place an official imprimatur on the "teasing".

By anon30821 — On Apr 25, 2009

The wearing of something on the head to indicate 'specialness' is widespread even today. In many cultures armed forces personnel both high and low wear helmets, etc. In civil life royalty and judges wear elaborate symbolic head gear and in the street people still wear caps, etc to denote their social standing.

The whole subject is fascinating.


By elfi64 — On Dec 21, 2008

I think using dunce cap would be so cruel to use on children since it denotes stupidity. How does a child overcome that label?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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