For many generations, beating and humiliation were two of the tools schoolteachers used to keep order. Children who misbehaved would get whipped with sticks and switches. Those who gave the wrong answers would be made to put on dunce caps and stand rigid and immobile in the corner, face to the wall and utterly silent until told otherwise by the teacher.
(From our modern, well-informed ringside seats, it seems impossible that publicly whipping and ridiculing children could have been believed by anyone to be leading-edge motivational strategies. Only much later were these assumptions finally shown to be as wrong as you and I know them to be.)
Why was it called a dunce cap? How did “dunce” come to mean dimwit, nitwit, halfwit, ignoramus, bonehead, dolt, imbecile, moron, nincompoop, numskull, pinhead, simpleton, birdbrain, and lame-brain when it started off meaning a very wise man?
John Duns Scotus was a 13th century Scottish philosopher and theologian who was for a time considered a great thinker. He was much admired by the Vatican for his detailed proof of god’s existence and his explanation of the immaculate conception. His followers were called Duns’ men, and these Duns’s wore pointy hats as symbols of their great knowledge. They did so in part as a tribute to another group of medieval wise men – sorcerers and wizards – who used their special pointy hats to predict the movement of the sun and stars.
Scotus’ deeper reason for wearing Duns hats was his claim that the pointy end would magically capture wisdom from the atmosphere and funnel it to the brain below.
Many took issue issue with Scotus, calling his reasoning deeply flawed. Scientists said for his funnel theory to work, the Duns’s would need to wear their pointy hats upside down. Humanists vilified him for what they called convoluted nonsense. As an example of Dun’s thinking, here are his three pillars of reasoning:
- Something can be produced.
- It is produced either by itself, nothing, or another.
- Not by nothing, for nothing causes nothing.
As if falling out of favor wasn’t enough, his Duns were mocked for their absurdities and their name became a term meaning anyone who was dull-witted.
John Duns Scotus’ three pillars of reasoning plant in my mind’s eye the image of Monty Python’s “Who are you, so wise in the ways of science?” Genius, idiot, genius again, seven hundred years later John Duns Scotus was beatified by the Pope for his intellectual contributions.
Every organization has people who produce convoluted nonsense. Take a few minutes and ask me about how I can quickly and inexpensively help you find why your business intelligence isn’t as helpful as you need it to be and what you can do about it. Here’s my number: 800-652-7595. Here’s my email: email@example.com.
Wondering about the pointy hats worn by witches? Witch hunters made the evildoers wear hats shaped like church steeples to draw down God’s grace for one final shot at redemption.