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.