PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Professor George W. Morgan, one of the most transformative teachers ever to serve the Brown University community, created one more poignant moment of genuine connection on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023, the final day of his long and extraordinarily well-lived life.
Beloved father of Alexandra, Grandpa of Benjamin and Madelin, step-grandfather of Raymond, husband and best friend of the late Barbara (Rogers) Morgan, whose memory is indeed a blessing, George passed away peacefully with four loved ones by his side, a few months shy of his 99th birthday.
Morgan was a beloved teacher and scholar who showed how the enduring questions about the human condition had no simple answers. To borrow from the poet Rilke, one of Morgan’s favorites, George helped us all learn how to "live the questions" as we met them in our own lives and times. Morgan helped generations of Brown students search for meaning, come to know themselves better and consider ways to work for healing and justice in the world.
Morgan pioneered interdisciplinary study at the college level and was the intellectual architect of Brown University’s globally renowned “Open Curriculum” and the inspiration for many of those students who participated in its creation. Arguably there was no single person more responsible for the rise in Brown’s popularity and growth than George Morgan.
On the occasion of Morgan’s 95th birthday, 91 of his former students, spanning from the 1950s to the 1990s, gathered in Providence in celebration of Morgan’s legacy. They not only shared stories of how he had changed their lives but how he had taught them in ways that enabled them to go on and shape disciplines and endeavors as diverse as neuroscience, law school education and medicine. See “Brown Alumni Monthly” 2/20/2020 (http://bit.ly/40XSd9s) for an article about Morgan’s career, influence and the celebration.
Morgan was born into a Jewish family in Vienna in 1924 – his father a lawyer and his mother a vibrant center of things social and intellectual. One of his father’s clients with knowledge of the Nazis alerted him to the approaching grave danger, and his father worked swiftly to garner exit visas to Canada for their family. They left Vienna just two weeks before Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” Nov. 9-10, 1938, so named because of the shattered glass that littered the streets after the vandalism and destruction of Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues and homes.
A woman named Mitzi, who was not Jewish, had worked for many years in the Morgan home, becoming as close as a family member. When it was forbidden for those who were not Jewish to continue contact with Jews, she devotedly donned a Yellow Star to fool those watching each time she entered their home. After the family’s departure, Mitzi arranged for many of their possessions to be shipped to them in Montreal, Canada. Amongst these were large knitting machines that George’s father had been given in settlement of a bill from a bankrupt client. These became a family business venture: Smartknit Woolens – a manufacturer of fabric and sweaters. The intricate sweater designs were the work of George’s mother; the financial oversight his father’s work despite the devastation of two strokes; and the management of the factory fell to George, at 15 years old. Despite no facility in English when he arrived in Montreal, he earned top honors in school and entered McGill for his bachelor’s degree and then continued his studies at Cornell for his doctoral work.
It was at Cornell that George met Barbara. The family story is that he saw Barbara … “across a music room, dancing like an angel – her skirts and beautiful long hair flying” and fell in love. It was quickly mutual, and they married despite real worries from both their families that their wildly different backgrounds did not augur well for marital success.
Barbara grew up the third of four daughters in a well-educated, upper middle class WASP family from Jamestown, NY, where big fights might be announced with the words “I am displeased….” She herself broke away from this cultural restraint with exuberance, even rebellion, choosing a vibrant, engaged approach to life – George and their loving, marvelous, married adventure.
Barbara was George’s essential partner and brought her own complementary gifts that are a crucial part of the “Morgan Legacy.” As George taught about and demonstrated living a life of purpose, respect, wholeness, balance, connection, integrity, clarity of thought, deep reflection and meaning, Barbara guided us toward living with joy, whimsy, warmth, hospitality, laughter, insight, compassion and love.
Together, they both demonstrated powerful listening and showed us that we can learn important things of lasting value in our lives both from reading and discussion in a classroom and from spending time together in thoughtful conversation and a spirit of conviviality outside the classroom, especially around the enjoyment of good food, beauty, music, nature and other pleasures in life, to experience delight as well as grow in insight and companionship.
Morgan arrived at Brown in 1950, recruited into Applied Mathematics, a department that Brown considered one of its “great jewels.” He moved from lecturer to assistant professor and quickly became tenured. He did pioneering research on ocean currents and then on blood flow. This work laid the foundation for later research on climate change and for open heart surgery.
Morgan became frustrated that so much Applied Math research was focused on military applications; this did not fit well with his pacifist commitments. By 1958, he had come to feel that the departments were becoming increasingly specialized and narrow in their approach to thinking and education. He said, “In order to study anything that had to do with how human beings live, the usual scientific approach seemed to me much too narrow.” He took a year off to spend at Harvard. He then proposed a radical idea to Brown President Barnaby Keeney – that Morgan come back and teach a course called “Modes of Experience: Science, History, Philosophy, and the Arts.”
In 1960, he was granted permission to leave his department. His official designation was changed to “University Professor without a department.” He was the first and only faculty member at Brown to ever be given this opportunity. As the university had no such place to send his mail, it continued to be sent to the Applied Math building!
In 1961, he was appointed the Chairman of the Committee on Human Studies, an initiative through which students chose a theme or question of human significance around which to organize their formal education. This was the precursor to Independent Concentrations at Brown.
From 1967-74, during which time the New/Open curriculum was being created, he served as the Special Advisor on Curriculum Development to the Dean of the College.
From 1978-81, he was the Senior Fellow of the Francis Wayland Collegium for Liberal Learning. The Collegium was conceived of by Morgan as "a support system for inquiries on significant issues of human life" and as a strategy to promote interdisciplinary study and experimental curricula. It sponsored lectures, conferences and workshops and at its peak involved 65 faculty members.
Morgan was committed to teaching students at a scale that could engender meaningful conversation. His seminars were typically limited to 16 students. He had students sit in a circle when no other professors would have considered that. He was a powerful listener and modeled that in his classes.
The courses he taught included “Between Man and Man” (later renamed “The Realm of the Interhuman”), in which he taught Martin Buber’s “I and Thou” and Ortega Y Gasset, and “Possibilities for Social Reconstruction,” in which he taught Lewis Mumford and Ivan Illich. In the early 1980s, he developed one of the first university courses on the threat of nuclear war.
Morgan had a strong point of view on many matters, but one of the positions he held most tenaciously was the view that even when people with fundamentally different perspectives come together, it is both possible and necessary to have respectful, meaningful conversations and learning, if not create a sense of connection and even a spirit of fellowship. Students should be encouraged to talk in depth with mutual respect and genuine dialogue, in Martin Buber’s sense of the term, even with those with whom they might disagree.
While Morgan’s teaching about relationship was very important to hundreds of students, his intellectual background was as a scientist. His papers, recently collected as the “George Morgan Archive” at the John Hay library, are full of his writings about Applied Mathematics as well as his thinking and writing on the humanist topics on which he spent the majority of his career.
Morgan was a rigorous thinker and imparted to his students both a deep respect for scientific thinking and an appreciation for its limits. In an age where it is fashionable to elevate intellectual endeavors that are quasi-scientific – such as so-called “artificial intelligence” – to a position of superiority, George Morgan understood and taught that the essence of what it is to be human can never be substituted for by a machine.
Morgan’s seminal written work was the brilliant, wide-ranging book “The Human Predicament: Dissolution and Wholeness,” published in 1968, in which he explores the various modes of apprehension appropriate to the sciences, social sciences and humanities.
He felt that the Humanities have a profound contribution to make to our understanding, and he was very concerned about efforts to turn Humanities into pseudo-sciences rather than appreciating them for what they offer in terms of different ways of knowing. He also wrote a second book manuscript – not yet published – titled “Companionship: With Whom We Break Bread.”
Morgan provided generations of students with the intellectual tools to live an integrated life. He modeled and argued that university students should be taught not only to master subject matter to become more technically proficient or well prepared for a vocation but also to consider the social implications of knowledge and connect learning with practice/action.
Morgan was an activist as well as a scholar and teacher. He and Barbara were actively involved in environmental efforts, most notably playing important roles in the “Save the (Narragansett) Bay” initiative. He also worked to end apartheid in South Africa and to pursue social justice in many different realms. For all of George’s progressive politics and pushing of conventions in academia, he was not a hippie. One of his students notes, “He had this kind of European dignified formality, somewhat old-fashioned and yet clearly not.”
Morgan did not shy away from taking controversial positions at faculty meetings. Sometimes he stood virtually alone on a matter of principle. He demonstrated that even when only a small number of people can muster the courage to speak truth to power, and the institutional odds might appear to be stacked against them, they can create meaningful and lasting change.
He taught that a sober look at reality might reasonably lead one to conclude that optimism is misguided but that retaining a perspective of hopefulness is essential. It is possible to work for radical change by taking a series of well-considered, incremental steps – what one of his students calls “Militant Gradualism.” One of the hundreds of students whose lives were powerfully touched by him writes, “I'm reminded daily that George believed that desirable changes in human life often come about in quiet, inconspicuous ways and that no matter how bleak the world is, there are grounds for hope, that there are still experiences that testify to human possibility, often embodied in the genuine caring and real listening that he brought to his teaching.”
While George was an intellectual, a Renaissance Man, and had great seriousness of purpose, he also had a lot of delight, thanks, in particular, to his partnership with Barbara. They loved listening to classical music, enjoyed numerous visits with their daughter, Alexandra, to France – where they have friends who are like their family. They especially loved going to Vezelay, where George, although a Jew, found an intense spiritual connection to the grand cathedral. They also enjoyed walking on the beach at their cottage in Little Compton and gathering white stones, which Barbara would inspect carefully at the end of each season to choose the very best, on which she would write the year.
George and Barbara moved across all boundaries, creating connections where none had existed before. They did this with young students, erudite faculty, chaplains and more. Decades before it became more commonplace, they had students over to their house on Doyle Ave. on the East Side of Providence for warm, significant conversation that transformed lives, over wonderful meals and bottles of wine. With their openness and acceptance, they served as beacons/guides, including to gay and lesbian students, even in the late 1950s.
One of his students writes, “Professor Morgan will always hold one of the most important places in my Brown experience as an extraordinary teacher and as an example of how to experience the depth and array of the human experience. But I think my fondest memories of George and Barbara involve the expression of their love for each other, for their daughter Alexandra, as well as their deep emotional attachment to their students.”
Another student adds, “ He was more than just a favorite teacher. He was an inspiration for how I could see and appreciate the world from a scientific as well as humanistic point of view.”
George was not a religious person, but one of his French friends said of him, “He is the most spiritual agnostic I have ever met.” George Morgan was a mensch. The life he lived serves as a powerful example that a single person, even if they do not become rich or famous, even if they have struggles and disappointments, can have an extraordinary, meaningful impact on the lives of countless people, one encounter at a time. The moment matters. Little gestures of humanity matter. Words matter. Living with heart matters. George Morgan mattered.
Donations can be made to The Nature Conservancy, https://preserve.nature.org/page/80429/donate/1 or mail donation to The Nature Conservancy, Attn: Treasury, 4245 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 100, Arlington, VA 22203.