History of the Scholarship
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Rendering Onself Useful

During his 1992 presidential campaign, William Jefferson Clinton effectively became the Rhodes poster boy, the paragon of the smart, eloquent (some might say glib), powerful world leader prescribed in the will of Cecil Rhodes.  The media attention bestowed upon the Scholarship over the last few decades has helped to create the mythos of the Rhodes as a passport to success in future life — political or otherwise, but certainly on a national or global scale.  Yet how many Rhodes Scholars actually fit this mold?


In 1903, Parkin claimed that all the selection committees had to do was pick the men whom they could envision becoming President of the United States, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, or U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain (Elton 1955, 9). Apparently, looks have been deceiving, as Clinton is the only Rhodes Scholar ever to have been elected president, and while three Rhodes Scholars have served as associate justices of the Supreme Court, neither the chief justice nor the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain has ever emerged from the ranks of the Rhodes.

Since 1903, the prefered career choices of Rhodes Scholars have remained relatively constant, with the top three being education, law, and business, followed by medicine, science, government, journalism, writing, and broadcasting (Schaeper and Schaeper 1998, 277-9).  A significant criticism leveled against the Scholarship is that it seems to have churned out many “bookworms” of the sort Rhodes disdained — he had intended to populate the world with Oxford-educated politicians and statesmen, not academics and lawyers.  In 1953, the English Daily Mail ran an article under the headline: “He [Cecil Rhodes] Wanted Giants — But He Got Steady Citizens” (quoted in Schaeper and Schaeper 1998), which captured the essentially quiet leadership displayed by the solid professional class the Scholarship has largely produced.  In truth, Rhodes Scholars are not among the ruling elite of every country — which should surely dispel the conspiracy theories about a secret society for world domination that have circulated since the conception of the Scholarships.  Their career trajectories tend to mirror those of other high-achieving graduates of the well-regarded universities from which they are drawn.

Perhaps the more controversial onus that hangs over them today has to do with the memory of Rhodes’ treatment of the African natives and the precedent that many of his labor and voting laws set for apartheid.  When it was first suggested that the Scholarship be opened to India, an Indian congressional leader warned “Indians with a grain of self-respect [to] think twice before accepting the crumbs thrown out from that arch-imperialist’s table” (Kenny 2001, 450); similarly, black and white Scholars alike have spoken of the “taint” of Rhodes’ “blood money,” and the need, if one were to accept it, to put it to good use.

The Rhodes Scholarship is not alone in its checkered origins, or its promotion of the “haves” at the expense of the “have-nots,” but like other prestigious institutions, it has democratized with the times — often dragging its feet, but evolving nonetheless.  As for making use of the Scholarship, surely all education at higher and elite institutions should be “put to good use” — an education is only wasted when the student refuses to learn.  Although Scholars sometimes speak of the “burden of expectation” that the Rhodes can bring, failing to meet the dictates of the founder’s vision is hardly a crime.  Far more serious would be to blur the connection between the Scholarship and its “bloody” origins, to somehow disown the founder.   Cecil Rhodes remains a noteworthy figure.  Perhaps, for a group of young people groomed for worldly success, it is particularly instructive to contemplate how swiftly a set of ideals able to inspire remarkable accomplishment by a man widely respected, can become generally reviled.

Works Cited

Alexander, David. 2001. “The American Scholarships.” In The History of the Rhodes Trust, edited by Anthony Kenny, 100-202. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Barber, William J. 2000. “A Footnote to the Social History of the 1970s: The Opening of the Rhodes Scholarships to Women.” American Oxonian 87(2): 135-146.
Elton, Lord, ed. 1955. The First Fifty Years of the Rhodes Trust and the Rhodes Scholarships. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Flint, John. 1976. Cecil Rhodes. London: Hutchinson.
Kenny, Anthony, ed. 2001. The History of the Rhodes Trust. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McCalla, Douglas. 2001. “Canada and Newfoundland.” In The History of the Rhodes Trust, edited by Anthony Kenny, 203-250. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schaeper, Thomas J. and Kathleen Schaeper. 1998. Cowboys and Gentlemen: Rhodes Scholars, Oxford, and the Creation of the American Elite. USA: Berghahn Books. 

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