Danielle Allen is a political theorist at Harvard University and a contributing columnist for The Post.
At his news conference last week, President Trump vowed that he would do everything within his power to fix the divisions in our country.
Few institutions on our shores serve to connect red and blue; poor and rich; black, brown and white; secular and religious; and urban, rural and coastal communities. Those institutions that do provide connective tissue ought to be given more resources.
One such institution is the National Endowment for the Humanities. Yet the president’s budget is expected to propose zeroing out the NEH budget. At approximately $150 million a year, that budget is already a minuscule portion of federal expenditures.
Mr. President, you should rethink that.
The NEH has consistently funded digitization of the papers of our founding era and leading statesmen and women, making our shared inheritance available to everyone. We have digital editions of the papers of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and of the 18th-century War Department, John Jay, Dolley Madison, Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt thanks to the NEH. With support from the endowment, U.S. newspapers have been digitized from the founding era through the early 20th century. (Disclosure: I recently received a grant of $30,000 in support of development of a video game about the Declaration of Independence.)
We now possess a Dictionary of American Regional English and digitized versions of the notes of literary greats such as Herman Melville . The Freedman and Southern Society project provides access to 50,000 documents tracing the experience of newly emancipated African Americans.
Nor has the attention of the NEH been directed solely to the preservation of the past. The endowment tends, too, to the needs of the present, and the role that literature, drama, art and film can play in making sense of our present circumstances. Take, as an example, the NEH initiative on behalf of veterans, called “Standing Together.” With more than $4 million in disbursements, the NEH has supported veterans on their journey into college, as well as theater and film programming on issues related to veterans’ concerns throughout the country. Thanks to the support of NEH, the Kansas Humanities Council is preserving personal artifacts of veterans; the Missouri Humanities Council has supported production of anthologies of writing by veterans; Humanities Iowa has supported an oral history project for returning warriors; and the Oklahoma Humanities Council is producing a documentary about the experiences of Native Americans in the armed services.
In fact, nearly 40 percent of the budget of the NEH is disbursed through state humanities councils, touching every state in the nation, and most of these councils have invested tremendous time and energy over the past decade seeking to ensure that their programming spreads to rural as well as urban areas, anchoring lifelong learning for people of all backgrounds.
The vibrant network of state and territorial humanities councils is one of the most important accomplishments of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It constitutes an unparalleled web of connection and conversation throughout the land, one of the few elements of our shared infrastructure that has the potential to rebuild America the Indivisible.
By affirming our shared past, and stretching to spread connected conversations throughout all of America’s 21st-century communities, the National Endowment for the Humanities provides an unparalleled public service.
Perhaps we are so divided, Mr. President — a state of affairs that, as you acknowledged, preceded even the election of Barack Obama — precisely because we have so profoundly reduced our investment in connective tissue such as the NEH. One hundred fifty million dollars a year seems like a pretty good deal for efforts dedicated to helping Americans build a shared culture.