Rhodes Welcomes the New Head of Search

photo of new head of program

By Carson Irwin ’08

Inspired by the grand vision of President Charles E. Diehl, Southwestern at Memphis introduced a course in fall 1945 that would become a fundamental part of the Rhodes College identity. Man in the Light of History and Religion (soon dubbed the “Man” course) aspired to “work the vast materials of our Western cultural heritage into an ordered whole under the integrating principles of history and religion.” It was originally taught by five professors—two historians, two philosophers and one biblical scholar. First-year students had the option to take the Man course or separate sections of History and Religion classes to meet academic requirements. The latter path would later be known as “Life: Then and Now” or “Life.” 

Lorraine Abernathy ’58 remembers the early Man curriculum as a mixture of lectures and colloquia that were held six days a week. The hours spent in class combined with a massive amount of reading caused Abernathy to feel both overwhelmed and awed: “When I was a little freshman from Columbia, TN, it was overpowering to discover for the first time that things were connected in ways that I never realized. It opened a whole new world for us. We learned to study and think in different ways.” 

As incoming faculty brought fresh approaches and new perspectives on what the humanities are, the curriculum evolved over time—though nearly all of the original themes and texts endure in the present version. The most evident change occurred in 1986 when, after considerable faculty discussion, the Man course was rechristened The Search for Values in the Light of Western History and Religion or simply “Search.” 

Search’s popularity grew rapidly among both faculty and students. Today, there are 25 faculty members teaching in 47 sections of the Search program and about 60 percent of incoming students elect to take Search. The course is so well known in the Memphis community that the Meeman Center for Lifelong Learning offers a condensed version of the series to area adults. What’s more, several esteemed institutions throughout the country have modeled similar programs on Search.

Just prior to the 2011-12 academic session, Rhodes appointed a new program director for Search, Dr. Geoff Bakewell. A Yale and Brown University graduate, Bakewell enthusiastically began his new position here after teaching in Classical and Near Eastern Studies at Creighton University in Omaha for 17 years. He says that Rhodes’ genuine commitment to the study of liberal arts was a major attraction to the position. “Rhodes is such a lively intellectual community,” Bakewell notes. “It has a wonderful mix of students who are interested in lots of different things. The faculty is equally committed to teaching and research. A lot of places talk that talk, but don’t walk that walk. But Rhodes really does.” 

A classicist and member of the Greek and Roman Studies Department, Bakewell teaches in as well as directs Search. Managing a diverse staff and recruiting new faculty are his top priorities. He says he enjoys getting to know the interests and personalities of his colleagues while taking on the challenge of seeking out a variety of professors to teach in the program. He is also responsible for organizing the Douglass Seminar, a faculty workshop held each May that allows the Search faculty to troubleshoot everything from course mechanics to the all-important choice of authors and readings. The discussions are typically spirited, occasionally contentious and often humorous. Bakewell describes the experience as “a combination of summer camp and going back to school. It’s exciting to get people together from different disciplines,” he says. “We are really living what we’re telling our students to do, which is to go on and keep learning.” 

Inevitably, there are different scholarly approaches to the topics covered in Search, but faculty members agree that preserving and improving the crossdisciplinary agenda of the program is paramount to its success. Each professor is attentive to the fact that academic disciplines must not be segregated in order for the course to accomplish its mission. This is both an exciting and challenging concept for faculty. 

Political Science professor Daniel Cullen has been a member of the Rhodes faculty for 22 years and has participated in the Search program for nearly as long. “What’s unique about Search is that it’s not a course taught by specialists. Every one of us is a specialist in something, but none of us is a specialist in everything that Search covers,” Cullen explains. In other words, the professors often find themselves in two roles—teacher and student in their own classes. 

Having just completed teaching in her second academic year at Rhodes, Music professor Vanessa Rogers already appreciates her part in the interdisciplinary program. When asked how music fits into the curriculum, Rogers explains: “Music is always a product of the cultural, historical, political period that it comes out of. So it makes perfect sense that music would be a part of the Search program. For example, Martin Luther was a musician. He was extremely interested in how music worked in his new vision for the church and about what congregational singing meant for religion.”

Much like the faculty, Rhodes students appreciate the intellectual diversity of the Search curriculum. Political Science major Mary Frances Dunlap ’12 was able to explore her interests in political philosophy in light of many other fields through the course. “I think that this approach to learning makes people a little bit more flexible in how they approach problems and how they try to work with people who are coming from completely different perspectives,” she says. 

Senior Chemistry major Maha Bano most appreciated the discussion-based nature of her classes. Bano remembers her professors often teaching by mediating conversations among students. When asked how Search has influenced her studies in the seemingly unrelated field of Chemistry, Bano reflects, “Search taught me how to think. Down the road, I may not remember every detail of every story I read, but it taught me how to critically evaluate a source and think about it in broader terms of human nature.”


Ben Curtis ’12 credits the Search program as the defining influence on his Rhodes experience. Curtis began at Rhodes on the pre-medical track but after taking Search, he was inspired to pursue a Philosophy degree and later won the Fred W. Neal Prize for excellence in Search. “It’s more than just learning about a historical text and moving on,” explains Curtis. “It’s understanding how we have the beliefs that we have and being able to show the history of the way in which thoughts and ideas have been shaped over time. It’s really powerful for the way that we understand ourselves.” 

Geoff Bakewell hopes that students will emerge from Search with a better sense of “intellectual humility.” “I hope they get a sense that what matters is not how they’re doing, but what they’re doing; the kinds of questions they’re asking; and the integrity with which they approach them,” explains Bakewell. “We’re really trying to encourage them to be honest, thoughtful people in a way that fosters their human growth.” After completing Rhodes degrees in Greek and Roman Studies and Political Science, Barrett Haga ’01 agrees. “One of the key skills that you learn in Search is to explore the question ‘why,’” says Haga. “That’s a skill that Rhodes teaches very well—master the art of exploration.”

Students and faculty alike acknowledge the interdisciplinary program as an integral part of the Rhodes, and broader liberal arts, experience.

So, where can Search go from here? Bakewell’s preliminary strategy is not to disturb something that’s working well. “Part of my job is Hippocratic: ‘First, do no harm,’” he says. “I want to maintain the traditions of democratic collegiality, which says that everybody who’s teaching in the program has a share in helping make it work.” 

Bakewell also wants to see the course become slightly less text-centric. “I love the texts that we read but I think that we’re missing out on a lot by not having more representation of art, music, the fine arts and archaeology in the program,” he says. “There are fascinating things that can come out of working in non-literary viewpoints. I’d like to see us do more work with, for instance, reading Dante alongside the sculptural and painting tradition of the Italian, Medieval and Renaissance periods.” 

Bakewell hopes that Search will enrich the liberal arts experience at Rhodes by being “an intellectual theme park” of sorts. “I don’t want it to be tacky and cheap with rides that leave you thinking about nothing, but I want it to really be an intellectual awakening for students and faculty.”