Monday, 18 May 2015

Dunce - The Origin of that Stupid Cap

A dejected student sitting alone, book in hand
The Dunce
Harold Copping


Noun & verb. Early 16th century.
[from John Duns Scotus (c 1266-1308), scholastic theologian,
whose followers were a predominating scholastic sect until discredited by humanists and reformers in the 16th century.]

A1 noun. obsolete. An adherent of Duns Scotus, a Scotist;
a hair-splitter, a sophist. E16-E17

A2 noun. obsolete. A copy of the works of Duns Scotus;
a book embodying his teaching on theology or logic. M16-M17

A3 noun. obsolete. A dull book-learned pedant. L16-M18

A4 noun. A person who shows no capacity for learning;
a dullard, a blockhead. L16

B verb trans. Puzzle; make a dunce of. Now rare. L16

There's something markedly dispiriting about the word dunce. For starters, there's the idea that this man, John Duns Scotus, has had his entire life's work distilled down to a monosyllabic epithet meaning a dullard. Granted, he wasn't alive to see the shift in religious thinking during the Reformation that cast his teachings out of fashion, and during his lifetime he was a respected and widely-read thinker; still, it is remarkable that some 700 years after his death, his name is still primarily (if indirectly) known throughout the English speaking world as a byword for stupidity.

My sympathy for Duns' legacy, however, melts into insignificance when I consider the word's application to a generation of struggling school children, branded with this slur and made to sit in the corner in front of their peers just because they struggled with spelling or tables or the like. The horror of this humiliation is poignantly captured in Harold Copping's painting The Dunce which, while it does not portray the eponymous cap, does capture the abject dejection of the struggling student. I'm not one that would be particularly quick to tears, but if I look at this painting for too long, it does threaten to pull of a choke of sympathetic grief from my chest. What Duns himself would have thought of his name being so used I have no idea, but the fact that one of his central Christian teachings was that love is superior to knowledge makes me think he wouldn't have liked it one bit.

Are you a student of John Duns Scotus?

Did teachers use the dunce cap in your school?

Do please leave your most learned comments in the box below.


  1. Yes, that's an utterly heart-breaking painting, and one I didn't know. It's a picture of pretty much all of us, at times, too, isn't it?

    Luckily, being a conjurer of fantasies, I can tell you that that boy (who was called Alf) grew up to work his long life on a farm, which gave him nearly as much joy as going home at the end of the day to his loving and adoring family. And that the narrow-minded teacher who reduced him to such sorrow died unloved and alone.

  2. The next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read, but I actually thought you have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you could fix if you werent too busy looking for attention. training for a german shepherd

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