Tom Székely, P.E., LEED AP

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July 12, 2007

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We the People, and the Learned Professions


What follows is expanded from a piece I wrote when I was president of the New York Chapter of the New York State Society for Professional Engineers back in 1994-95. It is presented here because of its relationship to ideas I discussed in the last issue.


An awfully long time ago, somebody figured out how to make extremely sharp tools by whacking flint flakes off a core with another stone, using the flakes for small points such as spear tips or knives, and the thus sharpened core for an axe.  The problem with stone however, is that the very brittleness which allows fashioning of tools in such a manner, virtually guarantees the tools will be broken in day-to-day use.


Although noble metals and copper were found by prehistoric humankind, and were worked by them, it wasn't until several thousand years ago, when people learned to smelt metals from ores, and alloy the metals so extracted, that reusable, sharpenable, blades became a reality.  Around the same time, the riverine cultures of prehistory began to allow farming and the domestication of animals as an alternative to tribal hunting and gathering, and civilization, with its hallmarks of written records as opposed to oral sagas such as Beowulf, and of really large structures such as the Pyramids of Egypt and Central America, as opposed to Stonehenge, made its debut on the face of the earth.


For the next few thousand years, humankind continued to build more and more complex structures and systems, relying primarily on empirical knowledge, mostly derived from the "error" part of a trial and error approach.  With the coming of the enlightenment, scientists (referred to at the time as "Natural Philosophers") developed the scientific method, but it was up to the first true engineers to integrate that method with mathematics, applying the result to extant empirical knowledge to develop the predictive methods which characterize engineering today.


With that, bodies of knowledge that had until then been manageable enough to have been handed down by rote over the millennia, had begun to become extensive enough to discern the patterns in them that allowed, via the application of engineering principles, Gothic Cathedrals to evolve from Egyptian Pyramids via Roman Arches.



Not long afterwards in Continental Europe, engineering started to become thought of as a learned profession, with L'Ecole Polytechnique in France training engineers since 1794.  That school came to be to meet the infrastructure demands of a growing nation that had formed a Corps of Bridges and Roads in 1716, and a precursor school (L'Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees) which shifted training of those engineers from apprenticeship to formal education in 1747.  Well before  L'Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees, however, early engineers had primarily been preoccupied with military efforts such as the development of fortifications, and of siege engines for the reduction of such, and the transition away from such preoccupation, as exemplified by these schools, is what has given us the term "Civil Engineer".


In Great Britain, meanwhile, the apprenticeship system that began with that tribal axewright who passed his skill on to some chosen youth, was still alive and well, but formal engineering education had not as yet become the norm. Perhaps it was because of the differences between the Scottish and Continental Enlightenments. Perhaps it was because of the strength of the guild system in the British Isles. Or, perhaps it was because the social organization of a people who started limiting the power of their king five hundred years earlier, precluded the kind of bureaucracy it took to centralize and standardize education in an evolving technology.


Whatever the reasons, the engineering tradition in Britain was decidedly different from that in France.


Which brings me to a New York designer of Bridges by the name David Bernard Steinman — calling D.B. Steinman a designer of bridges is like calling the Grand Canyon a ditch — who, in May of 1934, invited the leaders of the state professional engineering societies of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania to a meeting which led to the formation of the National Society of Professional Engineers


Engineering in the United States, the child of that as practiced in Britain and in France, had been as schizophrenic as the differences between its parents. When Steinman graduated from college in 1921, engineering was viewed as a trade practiced by people who didn't quite fit into polite society. Steinman understood, however, that engineering had to become recognized as the learned profession it had become in all the rest of the world, even in Great Britain.  The question was, and the question remains, what constitutes a learned profession?  That is, how did we get from barbers and butchers, to surgeons?


Well, doctors go to medical school, then they intern.  So it must be with engineers, and members of other learned professions.


With little of the chemistry or biology that a doctor must become intimate with before he takes on a machine with the incredible complexity of the human body being studied by chiropractors, the latter might be able to manipulate you into feeling better, but you wouldn't want them to prescribe cutting-edge drugs for the relief of inflammation. Both, however, have to prove their qualification to the State via the passage of a licensing examination, and both must combine clinical experience (internship) with their education prior to seeking licensure.  This is why an engineering degree alone, in the eyes of the law in each State, does not entitle one to practice in front of the lay public as an engineer any more than possession of a medical doctor degree entitles one to do so as a doctor.


Having said that, our legal system continues to rely, in some cases, upon unlicensed university faculty for expert witness services, and while the research and publication which are the prerequisites to a PhD certainly serve to deepen the knowledge of the PhD candidate, there is no substitute for the practice of a profession as an intern to broaden that knowledge to the extent necessary to deal successfully with the unknowable aspects of life in the real world.


This is not to say every engineer must be licensed, because an engineer could graduate, work for another engineer, and allow her/his employer to retain responsibility for the work s/he produces. One could also go to work in industry or manufacturing, avoid licensure, and practice engineering under what's called the industrial exemption, but as Government becomes less enamored of what it might perceive to be abuses of the corporate veil, that exemption might disappear.  What licensing is saying is than any engineer desiring to hold themselves out as such directly to the lay public must still prove to the State that they are qualified to do so.


I closed the last issue discussing qualified opinion, legislators and journalists, and lobbyists, hinting at the relationship between them all.  To put a point on it, legislators (mostly comprised by attorneys) and journalists are simply unable to do their jobs properly, if at all, without obtaining information from those who know the subject upon which each may be speaking or writing, and this is why licensing laws could not have been drafted without the input of those being licensed. 


Thus it was that the National Society of Professional Engineers lobbied for licensure, and thus it is that societies, interest groups, and corporations lobby today. While one can be cynical enough (or in the case of not a few, stupid enough) to believe that all lobbying has devolved to selfish self-interest, at the very least such is a counterproductive attitude to take in with oneself when visiting one's doctor or attorney, making it an attitude which thus should probably be re-examined in its entirety.


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