Briefly Noted: On Intellectual Snobbery

In a recent edition of The Chronicle Review, Rey Wojdat, chairman of the hospitality programs at Broome Community College (NY), argues for mutual respect between the intellectual and vocational disciplines within the academy.[1] In the article, Wojdat is pushing back against a tendency for those within the more intellectual disciplines to view vocational degrees as menial, and those within the vocational disciplines to view intellectually-oriented degrees as being removed from reality and unhelpful for society. He states, “Balance is key; mutual respect for intellectual and physical labor is essential for us to prosper and advance as a society. Yet we still marginalize nonintellectual work, both in academe and in the larger culture.” And yet, in Wojdat’s essay, the emphasis falls on correcting intellectual snobbery.

The marginalization of “nonintellectual” work, Wojdat surmises, stems not only from American society’s emphasis on obtaining a college degree in order to truly flourish, but also from our tendencies toward pride. He recounts Mike Rowe’s testimony before the U. S. Senate in 2011. Rowe, host of the Discovery Channel series Dirty Jobs, lamented that Americans have “elevated the importance of ‘higher education’ to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled ‘alternative.’” Rowe’s testimony intended to show that a nation of (mostly) consumers is not a nation that will sustain itself for long. People still need to make, grow, and fix things, and these skills require knowledge and training.

Wojdat hones in on pride as a primary cause of this sort of marginalization. Those of us who are more intellectually oriented, he avers, tend to view trained laborers as those who settled for an inferior trade which doesn’t require “expertise.” Yet expertise runs both ways. As he illustrates,

“I have seen and even touched van Gogh paintings. Thrilling as that was, I do not qualify as an art expert. I would never claim to be one, because I realize that you have to work in and study that discipline to qualify. Similarly, vocations taught in colleges can require as much work and study as ‘knowledge’ disciplines like economics and history. The knowledge and skills of a chef or a welder are not easily obtained, no matter what one may superficially observe.”

Wodjat also notes that skilled workers can be equally condescending toward “college boys” such as him. Pride is not the sole possession of the “intellectual.” Wojdat concludes by pointing out that he is both an academic and skilled laborer. As he is proud to be well credentialed and skilled in academics, he is just as proud of the fact that he “rebuilt [his] house inside and out–plumbing, electric, carpentry–with [his] own hands.” The skills are different from each other, but one set is not better than the other.

Wojdat’s point is a significant one which can be undergirded and enhanced by a biblical view of vocation. In the beginning God pronounced his creation “good.” And yet, he immediately charged his imagers with a task which involved changing his good creation. This task—tilling the soil—is one component of the original (pre-Fall) Great Commission which included other tasks such as filling the earth, and naming the animals. Taken together, these tasks are often referred to as the Cultural Mandate. In being commanded to “till the soil,” man was not only being asked to participate in agriculture, but also in a broader culture-making project. God was calling them to bring out the hidden potentials of his good creation, for his glory and for their own fulfillment as imagers.

Every aspect of human culture—homemaking, art, science, politics, sports, entertainment, business, entrepreneurship, and education—remains under Christ’s Lordship. Each of these cultural activities can be studied or done with great significance or no significance, for God’s glory or as an exercise in idolatry. The study of each of these activities is therefore vested with significance, whether the activity is more “vocational” or more “intellectual.” Each, in some manner or another, draws upon the spiritual, moral, rational, creative, relational, and physical aspects associated with our creation in the image of God. None of these calling are superior to the others. Each retains its own dignity under God’s reign, and each relies on the others. Professors in the intellectual disciplines rely moment-by-moment on the work of those whose craft is “non-intellectual.” Where do professors furrow their brows and deliver their bloviations except within lecture halls constructed by architects, skilled contractors, and their teams? How would a professor deliver his prolix (but, of course, not otiose) ideas to the broader public without the work of website designers, publishing houses, and paper mills?

Wojdat thus makes a point that we wish to take up and expand. We wish to remind the church and its educational institutions (colleges and seminaries) to foster an environment of respect for the many vocations and disciplines represented by the academy. God gives gifts to his church so that the people given those gifts might serve one another for the glory of God. Whether speaking or serving, both skills are for the sake of serving others (1 Peter 2:10–11). This means each Christian must consider himself or herself with “sober judgment” not with pride (Rom. 12:3). The church, then, is called to demonstrate tangibly this humility and service. In so doing, it not only embodies the “respect and balance” for which Wojdat calls, but also glorifies God by recognizing the multi-faceted splendor of the world which God created and the vocations he enables.



[1] Rey C. Wojdat, “Confessions of a Blue-Collar Prof,” The Chronicle Review (July 5, 2013), B20.

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