Book Review of Legacy

Jacob Weisberg (IL & New College '87) reviews Ziegler's book in The Sunday Times

From The Sunday Times

May 11, 2008

Legacy: Cecil Rhodes, the Rhodes Trust and Rhodes Scholarships by Philip Ziegler

The Sunday Times review by Jacob Weisberg

Among the reasons I look forward to interviewing candidates for the Rhodes scholarship every autumn is the window opened onto changing trends in undergraduate altruism. In the early 1990s, curing Aids replaced liberating South Africa as the most popular cause. A few years later, nearly every applicant was just back from distributing vaccines. In 2006, they all wanted to rebuild New Orleans. In 2007, they were devoting their careers to preventing climate change.

My reaction to this parade of idealistic young people, all with perfect academic transcripts, precocious leadership skills and ecstatic recommendations from professors, is usually a feeling of unworthiness. I invariably feel inadequate about choosing between them, and relieved I slipped through during an era of lower standards. At the same time, one often comes away slightly suspicious. Does all this benevolence flow from pure nobility of spirit, or also from the desire to adorn one's CV? It is a paradox of the Rhodes that in persuasively demonstrating concern for one's fellow man, one advances one's own prospects considerably.

Philip Ziegler takes note of this and other ironies surrounding the award in his thorough and useful institutional history. The endowment that Cecil Rhodes left for the purpose of strengthening the British Empire never did much to nurture his imperial ambitions. While Rhodes hoped to draw Americans and Britons closer together, they have generally kept separate company at Oxford. Where Rhodes intended to train colonial administrators and “well-rounded men”, the scholarships have done more to breed lawyers, consultants and, increasingly, the sort of academic specialists he deplored. Yet somehow, the reputation of the prize has continued to rise in inverse relation to the reputation of its donor.

From the outset, the trustees faced the daunting challenge of applying the amorphous criteria delineated in Rhodes's 1899 will. This remarkable document, which Ziegler appends, was both too vague and too specific to follow literally. Applicants were to be chosen two-fifths on the basis of scholastic achievements, one-fifth for involvement in sport, one-fifth for qualities related to character, and one-fifth for something we might describe as community service. Desiring to avoid “mere bookworms”, Rhodes later reduced the academic criterion to 30% while raising truth, courage, duty, etc to the same level. He further prescribed that each of America's states should be represented by one of 32 Rhodes scholars, apparently not understanding that there were 45 states in the union at the time. Pleased that Wilhelm II had decreed the teaching of English compulsory in German schools, Rhodes gave the kaiser five scholarships in 1901. One scholar was to come from Bermuda, where there were no schools capable of producing qualified Oxford scholars.

The interpretation of these instructions evolved in relation to politics, population changes and prevailing opinion. The German scholarships were suspended and resumed around the world wars. Restrictions to men, the physically fit and four whites-only South African schools were all lifted after protracted dispute. Scholarships for India, which Rhodes left out of his Commonwealth scheme, came later. Around the time of the Maastricht Treaty, European scholarships were added. Around the time of disenchantment with the Maastricht Treaty, they were subtracted.

In recent decades, many of the looser criteria have come to seem as anachronistic as the original racial restrictions. If you were to visit most American Rhodes committees today, I doubt you'd find that “manly outdoor sports” rate as central. Yet something of the original theme remains; you may not need to be an athlete capable of earning a blue, but the quality of physical striving remains an asset. As an Oxford contemporary put it, there are crippled Rhodes scholars, but no fat Rhodes scholars.

Has the Rhodes scholarship succeeded? In terms of the founder's goal of advancing the cause of the British Empire, it did little. In fostering solidarity among English-speaking peoples, it has perhaps brought some intangible benefit. In breeding leaders and public servants, it has arguably done more, producing a Jamaican premier (Norman Manley), an Australian prime minister (Bob Hawke), and at last in 1992, in Bill Clinton, an American president. But whether the scholarship has contributed to the achievements of its alumni, or merely done a good job of attaching itself to those marked for success, is debatable.

Ziegler takes a sanguine view of the programme, arguing that the positive results outweigh Rhodes's legacy of colonial exploitation. He sees expiation at the story's end: a century after his death, Rhodes's name was joined with Nelson Mandela's in a new fund designed to educate black South Africans. Within a few years, the first Mandela-Rhodes scholars will begin showing up at Oxford. This brings the bequest full circle. It is impossible to say whether the founder would have been pleased.

Legacy: Cecil Rhodes, the Rhodes Trust and Rhodes Scholarships by Philip Ziegler
Yale £25 pp388