A friend challenged my assertion that dunces could be smart, trotting out a common definition that they are “stupid or slow to learn.”  Well, that is the stereotype for sure, but it is arguable that dunce caps were awarded for misbehavior as much as innate inability, and given the nature of much instructing, there is often good cause for children not to want to learn or feel incapable of doing so.

Remember the movie/book A Brilliant Mind?  About John Nash who was  a “brilliant but asocial” mathematician?  His 5th grade teacher informed his mother that he was probably “retarded” as we used to say, because he showed absolutely no aptitude for math.  It never occurred to the teacher that John was bored to death.

Like beauty, stupid and slow is often in the eye of the beholder.

There is another angle to this which is quite curious and interesting: “Dunce: reportedly comes from  “dunsmen”, a name given by Renaissance critics of the followers of  John Duns Scotus, a famed thinker of the Middle Ages who possessed  “brilliantly complex and nuanced thought” according the the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy, a better source than most.   If you read that last sentence out loud, take a breath and then if interested in clarifying what I just said, I suggest a Google Search.

My point is that, at the very least, there should be room for my sense of “dunce” as well as the more common one.


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