About 80 young people around the world are learning this week that they have a chance to tread where Nobel prize winners, Australian prime ministers, a US President, and a country music star have gone before. They are the 2014 Rhodes scholars, who will spend two or three years at Oxford University, paid for by a trust founded more than a century ago by Cecil Rhodes.
As ever, the biggest contingent, 32 strong, is from the United States. Within the US contingent, Harvard University has chalked up the biggest score, winning six scholarships. The sole representative of the state of Illinois is Vinay Nayak, whose pharmacist father, Raghuveer, awaiting sentence for health care fraud, is reputed to be the "bribe guy" fixer who tried to flog Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat for a vast sum. The Daily Pennsylvanian has noted ruefully that Penn University has none, for the fourth year in a row.
Cecil Rhodes, the businessman and imperialist who used to have two African states named after him, launched the first scholarship, for a couple of promising young South Africans in 1902. The number quickly expanded. In peak years, it has exceeded 90.
The most famous former Rhodes scholar is Bill Clinton, who arrived at Oxford in October 1968, stayed a year, smoked dope "without inhaling" and came away without completing his degree. Bill Bradley, a professional basketball player, New Jersey Senator and contender for the 2000 Democrat presidential nomination, preceded Clinton by three years.
Another scholar who did not finish his degree was Kris Kristofferson, who passed up several promising careers to become a singer/songwriter and, briefly, Janice Joplin's lover. A song he wrote, 'Me and Bobby McGee', became Joplin's posthumous No 1.
It comes as a surprise to some Australians to learn that their current Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, not viewed by everyone as the intellectual type, was also a Rhodes scholar, who graduated in 1983 with a 2:2 in philosophy and politics.
He is not the first. Bob Hawke, Prime Minister from 1983 to 1991, who once made the Guinness Book of Records by drinking 2.5 pints of beer in 11 seconds, abandoned his planned degree while he was at Oxford in 1953-55 to write a thesis on wage-fixing.
Edwin Hubble, the astronomer after whom the Hubble Space Telescope is named, arrived at Oxford in 1910 to study, incongruously, Roman and English law. He soon gave up the idea of being a lawyer.
Surprisingly, despite his great fame, he was not one of the former Rhodes scholars to bag a Nobel prize. There have been three, none as well-known as Hubble – two Australians, Howard Florey and Sir John Eccles, who won the prizes for medicine in 1945 and 1963 respectively, and an American, Michael Spencer, who won the 2001 economics prize
Other Rhodes alumni include Dean Rusk, who was US Secretary of State in the 1960s, the US politician Senator William Fulbright and the feminist writer Naomi Wolf.
It will be interesting to see whether any of 2014 intake lives up to their illustrious allumni. Scientists, singers and leaders of the free world – they've got a tough act to follow.
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