For 96 American university students--including a number from Harvard--today is a very important day. Before it is over, 32 of them will have been selected as Rhodes Scholars for at least two, and perhaps three, years of study at Oxford University.
To become a Rhodes Scholar is perhaps the most highly prized honor any student can hope to receive in this country. This is not because the stipend is unusually large--it amounts to 600 pounds, or almost 1700 dollars, per year--but rather because a Rhodes has come to symbolize a brand of all-around excellence which will earmark each individual recipient for the rest of his life.
In large part, this results directly from the wishes of Cecil Rhodes himself. How he came to establish the scholarship program is a long, involved story which can be traced through the no less than seven wills he drew up in the course of his life-time. Basically, his premise centered on the importance of encouraging high standards of leadership, particularly in the English-speaking countries of the world. This received its clearest, most definitive statement in his last will, in which he outlined the details of his scholarship program.
One sentence from this will serve better than any other to explain just why the Rhode Scholarships have come to stand for such a general mark of all-around excellence: "In awarding the scholarships great consideration shall be given to those who have shown during school days that they have instincts to lead and take an interest in their schoolmates which attributes will be likely in after life to guide them to esteem the performance of public duties as their highest aim."
As set down by Rhodes, the specific qualifications required in Scholars are virtually impossible to find in any individual. They comprise: literary and scholastic ability and attainments; qualities of manhood, truthfulness, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy, kindliness, unselfishness, and fellowship; exhibition of moral force of character and of instincts to lead and to take an interest in his fellows; and physical vigor, as shown by fondness for and success in sports.
In actual fact, no candidate is expected to have all these attributes. The various selections committees instead look for some definite quality of distinction, whether in intellect or character. As one recent Scholar put it, "You really don't have to be a varsity athlete and president of the Student Council; you can just be a terribly nice guy."
Political right-wingers usually look with great suspicion on the Scholarships, which are awarded throughout the British Commonwealth as well. They feel Rhodes established them simply to strengthen British imperialism in the world by providing training opportunities for future political leaders. The Chicago Tribune considered this point so important a few years ago that it devoted a whole series of editorials to a detailed attack of the Scholarships.
Even if Rhodes had instituted the program with this point in mind, it is ironically not being carried out today. Rhodes Scholars end up not only in the Government, but also in teaching, law, industry, and many other occupations. If any of them do further British imperialism, it is only incidentally by mentioning they found England to be a wonderful place. Some of them would probably not even say this.
By sending the Scholars to Oxford, moreover, Rhodes more or less defeated any imperialistic purpose he may have had. "Oxford tends to make real scholars of people," according to a recent degree-winner there. He proved his point by citing that almost half of the Rhodes Scholars requested permission to spend a third year of study at the University--permission only granted "if in the interests of a Scholar's immediate studies and his future career."
In effect, each Rhodes Scholar is quite free to pursue whatever course of study at Oxford he so desires. About the only restriction is that marriage is forbidden. As one Rhodes Scholar has said, "We have to lead a life of nominal celibacy for two years."
At Home or College
Each year between 30 and 40 students at Harvard actually decide they would like to apply for a Rhodes and get University approval to do so. Then, with Harvard's recommendation, the applicant formally applies to the Committee of Selection in his home state or, if he has been here for more than two years, to the Massachusetts group.
Each Selections Committe, made up of six former Rhodes Scholars with a non-Scholar chairman, then invites the most promising candidates to appear before it in December for an interview. On the basis of this interview, it picks two candidates to represent the state before the District Committee, which covers six states. It is this committee, comprised of one representative from each of the States Selection Committees, which picks the four Scholars from the district.
Some districts have a reputation for being harder than others. The Middle Atlantic one, for instance--consisting of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland-D.C., and West Virginia--is supposed to be the toughest.
Some selection committees can also be harder than others in the type of questions they ask the candidates. Some make it a routine interview ("Why do you want to study at Oxford?") while others make it tough ("What's the worst book you've ever read?"; "When did you play poker?"; "What time is it now at the North Pole?").
For the 96 candidates who survived the competition at the State level last Wednesday, today is the big day. The eight District Selection Committees will hold their interviews within the next few hours, and shortly thereafter the 32 Rhodes Scholars for next year will be announced. A few of them--about four--will be Harvard students. All of them will have received one of the most respected, most competitive awards available anywhere for university students.