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Killing a Program That Brings History to Life

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Sept. 17, 1862, was the bloodiest battle day in United States history. More Americans — some 3,600 — died as Northern and Southern armies clashed at the Battle of Antietam, in western Maryland, than on any other single day before or since, even more than on Sept. 11.

One hundred and fifty years later, as the National Park Service commemorated the terrible loss at Antietam, I stood on the stage in a large tent on the battlefield before several hundred eager tourists, curious locals and enthusiastic Civil War buffs of every age and origin.

We had gathered to discuss a documentary made by Ric Burns based on a book I had written about death and the Civil War, a chronicle of the experiences of more than 700,000 Americans who died between 1861 and 1865, leaving a nation of mourners in a world profoundly altered by the scale of such human tragedy. The audience posed questions to Ric and me about history, about war, about patriotic sacrifice, about American identity, about the meanings of life and death and human mortality — and about how all those things were both different and the same across the century and a half that separated us from our Civil War ancestors.

Ric’s film, and the moving discussion it generated, were made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Reports suggest that the Trump administration’s coming budget will defund the endowment.

I would wager that few readers of this newspaper, and probably few Americans anywhere, are untouched by an N.E.H.-sponsored project or program. In 1990, for example, Ric Burns and his brother Ken produced an 11-and-a-half-hour documentary on the Civil War that was broadcast over five consecutive nights and seen by more than 40 million viewers. For much of the nation, it was an early form of binge-watching. The humanities endowment made that film possible.

Like its sibling the National Endowment for the Arts, the endowment brings the humanities into parts of the country that might otherwise never get to see a world-class museum exhibition or hear a lecture by a Pulitzer-Prize winner.

Last year, the endowment marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death by sponsoring a 50-state tour of his First Folio, published in 1623, the first collected edition of 36 of his plays. It was a best seller in its own time, and its 2016 travels provided the occasion for performances, workshops, lectures and student field trips in places as different as Vermillion, S.D.; Manhattan, Kan.; and Juneau, Alaska. Five years earlier, the endowment sponsored a similar tour — and 230 programs nationwide — to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.

The endowment has funded projects that have made some eight million pages of rare, crumbling historic newspapers available to anyone with a computer. It sponsors seminars that enable 2,500 high school and college teachers each summer to enrich their curriculum on topics ranging from Appalachian culture to Muslim identities to the poetry of Emily Dickinson. It has given resources for nearly four decades for National History Day, which has directly engaged more than eight million middle and high school students with records of the past.

It has supported the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, a repository of information from nearly 36,000 slave voyages across the Atlantic. It sponsors the collection, editing and publication of the papers of important historic figures, like George Washington and Lewis and Clark. And it supports the Warrior-Scholar project, which organizes humanities “boot camps” to help prepare veterans for the transition from the military to college.

The endowment helps Americans explore and better understand how we came to be the nation, people and world we are. It challenges us to reflect on our identities as citizens and as human beings, to ask profound questions about origins, legacies and meaning, to contemplate where we are going as individuals and as a society and why. It links the past to the future and it connects all of us to the purposes that guide us. The work of the endowment nurtures our national soul. We must ensure that it continues.

Drew Gilpin Faust is the president of Harvard.

Op-ed originally published in The New York Times.