Understanding Principles and Issues

Not long ago I attended a committee meeting with some surveyors to discuss a common response to an issue that had arisen. During the discussions, one of the other surveyors and I got involved in a debate over a subtle point. We were both, as I recall, making good, valid points when another surveyor said,

"You both are starting to sound like attorneys, and I’m starting to get turned off!"

Pause. Hmmm.

The debate was over a subtle point. Still, both the other surveyor and I were convinced of our positions. We decided to continue the debate later.

The objection raises some interesting questions: Are attorneys the only ones who are entitled to debate subtleties? Even more telling, are we, as surveyors, expected to gloss over all of the underlying theory of our practice and leave the debate of fine points to others? Do we, as surveyors, expect each other to be brain dead? What’s going on here, anyway??

I suggest that we are entitled (and indeed expected by the public) to understand and, if necessary, debate the fine points of our practice. After all, we are professionals—not truck drivers. Aren’t we?

Black’s Law Dictionary defines the term "Professional," in part, as follows:

". . . The labor and skill involved in a profession are predominantly mental or intellectual, rather than physical or manual.

The term originally contemplated only theology, law, and medicine, but as applications of science and learning are extended to other departments of affairs, other vocations also receive the name, which implies professed attainments in special knowledge as distinguished from mere skill . . . "

"…professed attainments in special knowledge as distinguished from mere skill." Interesting.

Does Licensure Equal Professionalism?

Most surveyors consider themselves professionals because they are licensed. I have found, however, that licensure is not an accurate gauge of professionalism. In other words, many unlicensed surveyors have acquired the necessary traits to be considered a professional. For one reason or another, they have not seen fit to get their license. The opposite is also true. Many, many licensed surveyors are no more professionals than are "professional" truck drivers.

If I am challenging one of your long-held beliefs, I do it not to stir up discontent, but for the long-term survival of this occupation we call "surveying." If you doubt that we perceive ourselves as "non-thinkers," ask a proponent of a mandatory four-year degree program why he thinks one is necessary, and he will tell you a prime reason for the necessity of the degree is a lack of respect. I would suggest that a more accurate reason would be a lack of self-respect—largely brought on by a basic ignorance of the principles that underpin our day-to-day practice.

Underlying Theory and History

We like to collectively consider ourselves as a profession. No doubt there are those among us who are the consummate professionals—competent, well spoken, well read on the subject, respected in the real estate community at large. They are easy to pick out. You need only ask them a question (which to answer requires a depth of knowledge beyond the ordinary) and you will get a thoughtful, considered response. Whatever your question, it is likely they will have pondered the subject before. These are the surveyors who are not just competent in executing empirical procedures, but who also understand the underlying theory and history behind the procedures. Understanding the fringe of the practice, they are all the more comfortable at the center. How did they get that way? Study. Some were fortunate enough to be force-fed the study at college (although a few graduates I have encountered apparently missed out) while others found the knowledge by extensive research on their own. In this instance, the means of acquiring the knowledge is of secondary importance. That the knowledge is acquired at all is of primary importance.

To be sure, there are elements of our practice that can only be learned through trial. Unfortunately, most of us lump all of our practice into that category, leaving no room for research and study. Have you ever investigated why you might or might not do something? This type of knowledge is generally what separates the technician from the professional. The lack of that knowledge has effects that permeate one’s whole practice—many times without him or her even realizing it.

Here is an example: Many surveyors traditionally have omitted conflicting boundary evidence on boundary plats. Why is that, to eliminate clutter? I hardly think so. I believe it is because they have been insecure about their decisions and did not want attorneys and others second-guessing what they decided. "The less everyone else knows, the less they can question."

Have these surveyors had good reason to be insecure? You bet!! For in the course of defending their position they would have had to expound on underlying theory, and they wold have been unable to do so. I am not saying that every decision that a nonprofessional makes is incorrect. Not by a long shot. What I am saying is that when pressed to the wall over why something was done, the nonprofessional will not have a good reason.

We cannot afford not to have good reasons for conducting ourselves the way we do. (Our clients can afford it less than we can.) An ignorance of underlying principles manifests itself when unusual situations are encountered. Executing empirical solutions when the situation is common is easy, but what about unusual situations? We do not have the luxury of choosing which problems to solve; unusual problems—by definition—happen less frequently, but they do happen. Procedural solutions break down when this occurs and professionals must resort to the underlying principles to devise a solution. Nonprofessionals can only muddle through and hope the issue gets forgotten. An opinion (or solution, as the case may be) will be rendered, even when based on a misunderstanding of the principles involved. This is where the client is harmed and where the credibility of the surveying profession at large is damaged.

Understanding Principles and Issues

Usually, our clients and their attorneys are completely dependent upon our understanding of the issues. If you do not understand the principles, you cannot fully understand the issues and you are flattering yourself to consider yourself a professional.

That sounds harsh, I know, but who would knowingly take their child to a pediatrician who was ignorant of the principles of medicine? Sheds a different light on the matter, doesn’t it? Well, some might say, our "profession" is not as complicated as medicine and therefore not understanding the underlying principles does not render one incompetent.

Perhaps not. And perhaps "professional" truck drivers don’t worry about underlying principles, either.

Copyright © 1996 By Joel M. Leininger, LS