&#91FOUNTAIN&#93Dunces, culture, marketing

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&#91FOUNTAIN&#93Dunces, culture, marketing

My son entered elementary school in Berlin ten years ago. On the day before classes began, I dropped by a stationery store to buy school things for him. In the store I saw a heap of cone-shaped hats, and I bought one because everybody else did. I had no idea, however, why children wore those peaked hats on the first day of school.
The next day, I took my son to school, he wearing that cone-shaped hat, but something was wrong. All the German children were holding their hats, not wearing them, and they were full of something! An old man beside me said, “The hats are not for wearing; it is an entrance gift stuffed with stationery or chocolates.”
I snatched off my son’s hat and held it shut to try to hide the fact that it was empty, but I could not hide my embarrassment.
Then I learned that many western cultures call those cones “dunce caps” and they were worn, at least in the past, by students who make serious mistakes or do not learn their lessons.
The expression originated in the 13th century with John Duns Scotus, a Catholic scholar who thought that a cone-shaped hat would enhance the wearer’s ability to learn. Knowledge amassed at the apex of the cone would percolate down into the wearer’s brain. But as his scholarly reputation waned in later centuries, the conical hat began to be used as the mark of a stupid person.
Later, jesters at royal courts began wearing colorful cone-shaped hats, and now they are part of a clown’s basic costume. Children often wear them at birthday parties, for example.
School entrance ceremonies have been taking place in Korea recently. I saw a photo of a ceremony at a Seoul elementary school on the JoongAng Ilbo’s web site. When I saw the photo, I thought it looked absurd, although kids were very cute. All of them were wearing cone-shaped hats.
Culture runs in cycles, and not only fads but also more basic customs are spreading widely in this globalized world. Setting off firecrackers on New Year’s Eve, which originated in China, is an even noisier celebration in Germany. Without really noticing it, we can hear lots of firecrackers on the last day of the year.
I ponder sometimes the meaning of accepting foreign culture, and I wonder how long it took for marketers to start promoting dunce caps for children on the first day of school and chocolates for Valentine’s Day.

by Yoo Jae-sik

The writer is Berlin correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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