By Christopher Howse JOHN RUSKIN was a man with a social conscience as well as being one of the biggest artistic lions of the Victorian age. After the failure of his marriage he devoted himself to odd projects that would help the working man,
such as encouraging undergraduates at Oxford to build a road in out-of-the-way Osney.
Ruskin expired with the nineteenth century, but not before a rich American had set up a college in his name to educate working men in the social sciences. In the same year that Lloyd George introduced old age pensions and Henry Ford started mass-producing Model Ts, Fr Charles Plater, an English Jesuit of Polish extraction wrote in The Month that he was 'dreaming of a Catholic Ruskin Hall."
This and something more than this is now perched at the top of Headington Hill, Oxford. Plater College now takes between 40 and 50 men and women each year and offers five courses. After a year or two students can gain a diploma from Oxford University or diplomas from the college in Theology, Ethics, social studies, and most recently a qualification designed for those in parish visiting. The college still looks for educational potential and a desire to work for a more Christian order in society, rather than formal qualifications from its applicants. Although founded in 1921, Plater has been constantly renewing itself. It has only been in its present complex for four years. The college's continuing expansion at a time when the Catholic Social Guild, its former mentor, has been wound up and inflation mounted, is attributable to the efforts of Mr Joseph Kirwan, its Principal from 1962 to 1977.
On Thursday Mr Kirwan, a Knight of St Gregory, was among the guests attending the investiture of Mr Christopher Hussy as a knight. Mr Bussy has been on the governing body of Plater since 1965 and it chairman since 1969.
Bishop Emery of Portsmouth pinned on the medal and handed over an elaborate rescript from Rome, penned on a large illuminated 'scroll. The long room, which at the moment doubles as a chapel for the college, was packed with present and past students.
The Pope grants Knighthoods of St Gregory. To receive one is to enter a secular order of honour, The good works of the new knight are entered in the papal rescript granting the honour. Mr Bussy said that as the bishop added praise to praise during his address he recognised himself in it less and less.
A slight doubt crept into the ceremony when the bishop admitted that the rescript counted Christopher Bussy as a member of the diocese of Portsmouth. As Mr Bussy lives in Southwark diocese it seemed most likely that the whole initiation was null and void, But with easy good humour, the bishop donned his mitre with a characteristic flick and buckled down to his work of bemedalling.• The central place of college in Catholic life in this country was shown by the concelebrants of thp special Mass for the occasion. Bishop Emery was flanked by the Abbot of Ampleforth, and the Masters of St Benet's Campion and Greyfriars Halls. which are the Oxford study centres for the Benedictines, Jesuits and Franciscans.
"I think we're doing a useful job as far as the Church is concerned,Mr Denis Chiles, the college's principal said. "I think there's a good spirit in Plater and we've now adjusted to our present size."
Mr Chiles felt that the college was better publicised than in his youth — he went to Ruskin simply because he had never heard of Plater. "But we still get parish priests who don't know what we are and what we do," he said. The college remains the Catholic worker's college, but now admits non-Catholics and even non-Christians. This year it has two Muslims. "There are no real complications," Mr Chiles says, "We are still predominantly Catholic. There are no false pretences. Others understand that it is a Catholic institution and if they are not happy with that. they don't come."
This year the college has had so many applications' that it had to turn people away. In a way this benefits the college, as it forces them to be more selective. Mr Chiles says: "I would like to see more applications from the traditional type of student who wants to become involved in politics and trade unionism." He has revived the Platernians, an association of past members, to make the college better known.
I he students themselves gave the hest idea of what it was like to be at Plater. "I'm just hack from Africa," one nun said; "The college is a happy community and I think I'm getting a lot out of it." Another young woman said: "You wouldn't believe how much work it takes to produce an essay every week. The tutors know their stuff, and we an use all the university libraries."
I.ike Ruskin, Plater has produced MPs and trade union leaders. It really needs its scholarship grants from Cafod or the Catenians, and all the financial management that an industrialist like Christopher Bussy can provide. It fills a gap left by the universities and workers colleges, because it aims, as Pope John XXIII asked: "to humanise and Christianise the trends of civilisation in our times."