Anthony Andreassi, C.O., Teach Me to Be Generous: The First Century of Regis High School in New York City. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014.
Reviewed by Robert C. Serow
North Carolina State University (Emeritus)
A century after its founding by the Jesuits, Regis High School in Manhattan occupies a unique place in American education as a tuition-free, highly selective school for Catholic young men. Although Regis is well known to college admissions officers and to members of New York’s Catholic community, Anthony Andreassi’s Teach Me to Be Generous is the first full-length treatment of the school’s founding and subsequent history. Father Andreassi (a priest of the Oratorian order) is a Regis faculty member who holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown, and Teach Me to Be Generous amply displays his skills as researcher and writer. The result is an engaging account that extends from the school’s origins as a charitable endeavor of the widow of a nineteenth-century New York mayor to the current effort to provide opportunities to larger numbers of students from economically challenged families.
Andreassi uses Regis’s 50th anniversary to mark the turning point between the old and new eras in the school’s history. During its first half-century, Regis was an intensely competitive institution centered on classical languages, traditional Catholic spirituality, and exacting standards of personal accountability. Seeking to protect its graduates from potential challenges to their faith, the school counseled seniors to apply only to universities sponsored by the Church. Beginning roughly in 1966, Regis turned itself upside down in hopes of accommodating external demands for change, notably the Second Vatican Council’s call for openness and renewal throughout the Church and, at a more practical level, the recommendations of visiting teams from the regional accrediting association, whose reviews determined the school’s ability to continue awarding state-sanctioned diplomas. In addition to an updated curriculum and more relaxed disciplinary policies, the most consequential of the new measures was unconstrained college choice. From the late 1960s on, Regis seniors were encouraged to apply to a broad range of colleges and universities, and most responded by seeking, and often winning, admission to the Ivy League and other elite institutions.
As with many Catholic schools, the 1970s pushed Regis to the brink of financial ruin. Despite the founding family’s continuing support, the combination of rising operating costs (due mainly to the hiring of lay teachers to replace the rapidly dwindling number of Jesuits) and nationwide economic distress left the school with annual budget deficits. One of the proposed remedies was to begin charging tuition—a change that would have jeopardized the school’s ability to set academic standards independently of consideration of tuition revenues. Instead, Regis reduced costs (achieved partly by shrinking the size of its incoming classes from 175 to about 135) and established an annual fundraising campaign that placed its finances on much firmer footing.
Yet for all of the transformations it has undergone, the twenty-first-century Regis described in Teach Me to be Generous has retained the school’s most distinctive characteristics: All of its students are baptized Catholics, male, and academically gifted. And as was true in 1914, the school’s admission criteria include special consideration for those who would be otherwise unable to afford the cost of a first-rate private school education.
The book is richly illustrated with dozens of photographs from the early 1900s to the present and offers short vignettes about certain glorious moments in school history (e.g., the championship basketball team of 1948), profiles of students from the early years, and character sketches of beloved but poorly paid lay faculty members who spent their entire careers at Regis. At 195 pages of text, the pace is brisk and efficient, while 46 pages of notes provide ample documentation of sources, which are mostly materials from the school’s archives and interviews with key informants.
Teach Me to Be Generous will be a valuable resource for anyone wishing to understand how and why some Catholic schools continue to thrive when so many hundreds of others have been forced to shut down in recent years. It is fundamentally an optimistic story of one institution’s adapting to changing times without sacrificing the principles on which it was founded.