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Education: The Best for the Fight

3 minute read

“What am I trying to express?” Empire-Builder Cecil Rhodes would exclaim to his friend, the famous writer. “Say it! Say it!” Then Rudyard Kipling would say it, “and if the phrase suited not, Rhodes would . . . work it over, chin a little down, till it satisfied him.” In such a way, the great man finally wrote his will, and set up the scholarships* that he hoped would “encourage and foster . . . the union of the English-speaking people throughout the world.” Last week, on the 100th anniversary of Rhodes’s birth and the 50th anniversary of the scholarships’ founding, the English-speaking world paid its respects to Rhodes’s dream.

Queen Mother Elizabeth and Princess Margaret flew to Southern Rhodesia to open a special Rhodes exhibit. Meanwhile, 5,400 miles away, 400 ex-Rhodes scholars gathered at Oxford for a celebration of their own. Half came from the U.S., the rest from Australia, Bermuda, Canada, India, Malta, Newfoundland, New Zealand, South Africa.

As they entered their old colleges and once again moved into their old rooms, they found that many of the gate porters still recognized them. As of old, the scholars slept in their old Victorian mahogany beds, shaved in the morning at the same old jug and bowl. “It is still 100 yards to the nearest john,” complained one ex-scholar. All over Oxford, middle-aged men showed off old haunts to their wives. Arkansas’ Senator James Fulbright, awarded an Oxonian honorary degree, said nostalgically: “Nothing has changed—only us.”

What has changed, drastically, is the purpose of the scholarships themselves. Cecil Rhodes, who used to ride across the veld with a well-worn copy of Plato in his saddlebag, wanted the scholarships to go not to mere “bookworms,” but to well-rounded leaders—”the best men for the world’s fight.” As it turned out, Rhodes scholars have been on the bookish side. Certainly they are anything but the tight little band of political elite that Rhodes hoped would run the English-speaking world. Of the 2,831 selected since 1903, almost half have gone into law or education: 33 have headed colleges or universities, 44 have become judges. Medicine and science have taken some; one—Australian Pathologist Sir Howard Florey—shared a Nobel Prize. In the U.S., the scholars have ranged from Author Christopher Morley to Commentator Elmer Davis to Dean Rusk, now head of the Rockefeller Foundation. But few have ever been elected to a major political office.

Said the London Economist last week: “The Rhodes Scholarships were supposed to be an empirical part of [Rhodes’s] imperial dream. Instead, they are playing a complex and important role in a very different kind of imperialism: that extended by an ancient civilization to lands often more powerful than itself … It is in this context of moral influence and example, rather than of political alliance and expansion, that [they] may prove to be a force of cohesion far stronger than originally conceived by Rhodes.”

*Providing two to three years’ study at Oxford for students selected by special local committees in the U.S. and the British Commonwealth. In a codicil, Rhodes added a few scholarships for Germans—in the hope that they would benefit from the civilizing influence of Oxford.

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