Frank Giuseffi (SFGI96) Pays Homage to St. John’s with New Book

June 14, 2021 |  By Eve Tolpa

Frank Giuseffi (SFGI96)

Frank Giuseffi (SFGI96) describes his new book as the culmination of “many ideas [that] found their origins in particular experiences I had as a grad student at St. John’s.” Released on April 7 by Lexington Press, it’s titled How the Socratic Method Engenders Authentic Educational Experience.

Giuseffi is an assistant professor of education at William Woods University, located in central Missouri. Originally from St. Louis, he earned a bachelor’s in philosophy and political science at University of Central Missouri, but he says that when he first encountered the St. John’s reading list, “I knew I had just touched the surface of my education.”

As a student at the Graduate Institute, he took a deep dive into texts that continue to influence him: Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, the Dialogues of Plato, The Confessions of St. Augustine, Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. But it wasn’t just the texts. “When I think about those books, I also think about how great the tutors were in facilitating the dialogue,” Giuseffi says.

After he completed his doctorate at Lindenwood University in 2014, he knew that he wanted to explore and uncover educational themes in the same works he had studied at St John’s. How the Socratic Method Engenders Authentic Educational Experiences is one result of that exploration.

The book offers strategies for using the Socratic Method in educational contexts, laying out a definition of the method itself and explaining how it engenders not only critical thinking but also enhanced leadership and self-directed learning—not to mention the personal enrichment that results from delving into questions “that speak to fundamental issues and problems of human life.”

While it’s not a textbook as such, Giuseffi says he has “no problem if it is considered that.”

“I did kind of write it as a teaching handbook, a book that will give you some ideas. It can reach people who care about theory and philosophy and those who have more of a practical bent, who can use the techniques in their teaching work.”

For example, the chapter entitled “Learning to be a Socratic Educator” offers teachers (both novice and experienced) the chance to reflect on the qualities required to facilitate a Socratic discussion. Says Giuseffi, “[It] includes an exercise that first asks readers to write their teaching philosophy based on a series of prompts. Readers are then asked to answer a modified version of the original prompts that specifically relate to the Socratic method. Both exercises bridge the gap between theory and practice.”

He occasionally uses these techniques himself, and while his students—both undergrad and doctoral—are often pleasantly surprised by the process, they sometimes find the Socratic method “daunting” and “struggle with the authenticity of that model of teaching and learning.”

As evidenced by his book’s title, authenticity is an important touchstone for Giuseffi. To him, the term refers to “opening yourself up to others in an honest and sincere way. You have to be open to your presuppositions being challenged. In Plato’s Meno, there’s a part where Socrates says, ‘Let’s be brave.’ I tell my students to think about [opening yourself up] as a form of courage.”

He has several vivid memories of his own GI tutors taking a counterintuitive approach to discourse. “I remember we were talking about Plato’s Republic, and Phil LeCuyer explored what the interlocutor was saying rather than what Socrates was saying. That generated more discussion. It always stuck with me.”

Similarly, he recalls, “John Agresto, who was the [Santa Fe campus] president at the time—he also tutored—we were talking about Oedipus Rex. He asked, ‘What has Oedipus seen?’” Rather than focusing on the blindness of Oedipus, Agresto upended assumptions about what constitutes a fruitful line of inquiry.

By giving students the opportunity to learn in new and sometimes disconcerting ways, “St. John’s prepares you and bolsters your ability to be a lifelong learner, because it teaches you how to ask the right kinds of questions,” Giuseffi says. And while he sees a direct application for the college’s method in his own work, he feels it can benefit anyone. “Whatever field you are in, you will always be a person who can learn more, research more.”

That last point is an especially important one. The courses Giuseffi teaches at William Woods are professionally oriented, and in general he finds that educators tend to concern themselves more with real-world challenges than with abstract questions like “What is virtue?”

“The pressures of modernity, and the utility-oriented education that resulted from it, diminished students’ desire to look inward or to strive toward self-knowledge,” he says. “In the first and last chapter, I explore the ways teachers can encourage students to grapple with the enduring questions generated by the Socratic method, and consequently move beyond skills-based and solely practical forms of education.”

In the act of pursuing his own research—whether on Plato and Aristotle or modern philosophers— Giuseffi continues to pay homage to the St. John’s ideal of learning for its own sake, and he hopes to foster the same intellectual curiosity in his students.

“I really want to inculcate in my students this idea of searching, but to do it in a serene way, in an enjoyable way, where it is kind of like your life’s mission,” he says. “In a world that’s so bombarded by career development and technologies and climbing the ladder, it’s a wonderful solace to have that experience.”