For most of the 20th century, many of America's youthful best and brightest have congregated behind Oxford's ancient college portals as Rhodes scholars, beneficiaries of mining magnate Cecil Rhodes' imperialist vision of training Anglo-Saxons to rule a better world.

This week, hundreds of former Rhodes returned for a rare reunion, the first in 30 years. The event offered a summertime chance to commemorate their own good fortune, to refurbish the glow of belonging to an exclusive fraternity and, for some, especially the younger ones among the handful of women and blacks, to question the Rhodes' past and purpose.

"When you say you were a Rhodes, people always perk up," observed Michael Cannon, a 32-year-old Washington lawyer, as he mingled at one reception. "It provides an entree, a little like a Nobel Prize . . ."

Those attending formed a cross-section of American achievement: the poet Robert Penn Warren; NATO's supreme commander Gen. Bernard Rogers; retired speaker of the House Carl Albert; Gov. William Clinton of Arkansas; James Billington, historian and director of the Smithsonian's Wilson Center; Michael Kinsley, recently named to write the TRB column in the New Republic, and 6-foot-11 Tom McMillen, a prospective Washington Bullet who finished his degree in politics and economics a decade ago with "overstanding honors."

A similarly impressive group did not come, including seven who are currently in the Senate or House, Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White, a host of leading industrialists and Pete Dawkins, one-time West Point All-America, Vietnam war hero, honorary doctor of public affairs from Princeton and, to many, the quintessential Rhodes. Some time ago, Dawkins, who has just left the Army as one of its youngest-ever generals, regretfully decided the air fare to Britain would cost too much.

The reunion was, over three days, a feast for Anglophiles, featuring the panoply of dignified royalty and colorful academic traditions with nary a crass peep about fund raising or a sign of boisterous, drink-fueled back-slapping.

"It was better than we could have ever dreamed possible," said Truman Schwartz, a 1956 Rhodes from South Dakota who teaches chemistry at Minnesota's Macalester College.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip attended the opening garden party (the queen's first visit to Oxford in seven years). A service of thanksgiving was conducted at Christ Church Cathedral, degrees were conferred on Penn Warren, Rogers and others at a convocation in Latin, there were banquets in the college halls, and, for good measure, strawberries and cream were abundantly dispensed in the dappled light of mid-afternoon.

The queen, in a lime-colored spring coat and matching hat, slowly worked her way through the gawking garden crowd, pausing here and there to chat about who came from where and what they had studied.

So genteel was the event that it seemed only a churlish outsider would scratch the surface looking for faults. Still, some in the Oxford community were angered by the expenditure of $15,000 to remove a portion of a wall hundreds of years old so the royal procession would have more room. Now, brick by brick, the wall will be put back. And the food for 1,500 at the black-tie trustees' dinner was, to quote one critic, "not so hot."

But more disturbing was the shadow that Cecil Rhodes himself cast over the affair. The world has come a long way from Rhodes' first idea as an undergraduate of sponsoring a secret society of English-speaking males (later, he added Germans) to create an empire so great as to "render wars impossible and promote the best interests of humanity."

Rhodes was inspired at Oxford in the 1870s by the teachings of John Ruskin, one of the masters of Oxford's Oriel College. "There is a destiny now possible to us, the highest ever set before a nation to be accepted," Ruskin declared. "We are still undegenerate in race, a race mingled of the best northern blood. We are not yet dissolute in temper, but still have the firmness to govern and the grace to obey."

In the glare of a century's hindsight, such sentiments are chilling.

As a young man, Rhodes went to South Africa and founded the DeBeers Mining Co., still one of the leading companies of its kind. He made a successful career in politics, marked by triumphs and pitfalls in his commitment to expand Britain's sway. Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, was one of his territorial acquisitions.

In his seventh and last will in 1899, not long before his death at 46, Rhodes, instead of creating a secret fellowship of empire-builders, provided for the grants to bring Americans and men from the English-speaking dominions such as Canada, Australia and South Africa to spend two or three years at Oxford. A smaller number were to come from Germany.

Rhodes believed the experience at an impressionable age would create bonds among the scholars that would help achieve his ambition of a world guided by Anglo-Saxons, and that the Rhodes would take their rightful places as the helmsmen.

The recipients were to be all-around young men and not, Rhodes specified, "merely bookworms." They were to have qualities of leadership and sportsmanship, an ability to master the world's challenges combined with an eagerness to do so. On the one hand, Rhodes' clear identification was with Caucasians, who were, he believed, the inheritors of destiny. Yet, in a sentence that means more today than it did when he wrote it, Rhodes said, "No student shall be . . . disqualified for election to a scholarship on account of his race or religious opinions."

In that age, women and the subjugated colonial peoples simply didn't enter the equation.

In 1977, after Rhodes' will was amended by an act of Parliament, women were included for the first time, 13 of them Americans.

One of the current Rhodes is Susan Billington, whose father is the Wilson Center director. Billington is the first daughter to follow a father in winning a scholarship and has the sort of record that even Cecil Rhodes could not have overlooked. She is a graduate of Sidwell Friends and Yale. While studying contemporary politics at Oxford's Balliol College (to complement her medieval history bachelor's degree), she has trained four or five hours a day in women's crew and worked part time in The New York Times' London bureau.

Billington and Jessica Teich, another Yale graduate, who plans to be a playwright, recognize the special cachet of their award. "The Rhodes is one of the very few badges a woman can earn right off that establishes her legitimacy for whatever she does later," said Teich.

The racial situation remains more sensitive. Over the years, about 35 black Americans have been Rhodes, a tiny fraction of the more than 2,000 U.S. scholars. In recent years, Rhodes have come from countries such as Nigeria and Zambia, and there has been third-world representation from India, Pakistan, Malaysia and elsewhere.

South Africa is the main problem. At an otherwise bland afternoon conference on the future of the scholarships, Washington attorney George Keyes,, a 1970 Rhodes who is black, called for an overhaul of selection procedures in South Africa.

In 1970, Keyes said, he and others had pressed a petition on the Rhodes trustees for an improvement in representation of nonwhites from South Africa. Since then, he reported, although there have been more than 100 scholars chosen from South Africa, only two have been nonwhite, an Indian and a black. "These scholarships," Keyes declared, "have an obligation to benefit the less privileged people in the country where Cecil Rhodes' wealth was amassed."

Although Keyes' remarks were warmly applauded, Rhodes administrator Robin Fletcher said only that they would be studied. Even so, South African Michael Smuts, a 1935 Rhodes, interrupted to ask assurances that nothing would be done over the objections of the local Rhodes committee.

Another issue is the source of the Rhodes trust income. The principal, according to the chairman, Lord Robert Blake, is now valued at about $75 million, a substantially better return on Rhodes' original bequest than the rate of inflation. Annual income is about $3.75 million, enough to meet rising costs. Each scholarship is worth about $18,000.

But just where the money is invested is a subject that makes many Rhodes avert their eyes. The universal assumption is that most of it is still in South Africa, where Rhodes left it. Although investments in South Africa are controversial at many American universities, there appears to be a tacit understanding among the scholars that an overhaul of the trust finances to remove any political blemishes might be more costly than beneficial.

Raymond Burse, the 32-year-old president of Kentucky State University, who is black, said unapologetically, "I took the money, and now I'm putting it to use." The good that the Rhodes scholarships have brought to American society far outweighs the negatives of its origins, he said.

There is no question that the prestige of being a Rhodes is very high, as it has long been. There are dozens of applications for each of the 32 U.S. scholarships each year, and the caliber of those who succeed is consistently first-rate. Although students are chosen from throughout the country and without regard to their family or financial background, the largest numbers still come from Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

"The Rhodes is a credential in a credential-obsessed society," said Michael Kinsley, who at 32 is a graduate of Harvard Law School and has been editor of both Harper's and The New Republic. Because of that, he said, it has a self-fulfilling character, choosing those who are embarked for success and giving them an extra boost.

Oxford professors are abundant in their praise of current Rhodes as well as former ones. "They have a quality of energy, clear-minded commitment and enterprise," said Wilfrid Beckerman, a leading economist at Balliol. In his 20 years at Oxford, Beckerman said, he could remember only one Rhodes who had not performed as expected of him.

The Rhodes themselves, or at least the sample who traveled to Britain for the reunion, invariably speak of Oxford with the special affection a student has for a place where youth had its fullest flower. "It was the best two years of my life," said Matthew Nimetz, who was a counselor in the State Department during the Carter administration.

For all the scholars, there seems to be some adjustment necessary from the pace and style that characterized their American schooling to the more contemplative approach at Oxford. Wade Dyke, a current Rhodes and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, said that before he arrived at Oxford, he had taken only multiple-choice exams. Now he had learned to think analytically, he said.

In subtle ways though, the Rhodes experience is changing, becoming, as it were, less gentlemanly. In the late 1930s, according to Penn T. Kimball, now a professor at Columbia, he had been invited to Cliveden, the estate owned by American-born Nancy Astor. On one occasion, he recalled, he had taught George Bernard Shaw to do the "Lambeth walk," a popular dance of the day.

Few latter-day Rhodes get that sort of old-style English country weekend. Even the British do it much less.

Until 1981 the American scholars always traveled to Britain on the Queen Elizabeth II, a leisurely throwback to the stately way affluent American students used to journey to Europe. It was a symbolic signal to the scholars that they were joining an elite.

They still are special when they come to Oxford as Rhodes, but last year, for the first time, the trustees issued plane tickets instead.