Ray Notgrass created Exploring Government as a one-semester government course for high school with a particular audience in mind—either homeschooling or private schooling Christians (Protestant), who also prefer a conservative, limited-government perspective. The course can also be used to supply a half credit for English (coverage of literature and composition), although the additional work for the English credit is optional. The course design works best for students working independently but should also work well for a group class that meets weekly to discuss the reading and writing assignments.
There are two essential course books if you want to use only the government course (without English credit): the 494-page Exploring Government textbook and We Hold These Truths. The latter book is a collection of writings, some related to government in general (e.g., the Magna Carta) and most relating particularly to the U.S. government. We Hold These Truths includes articles, historical source documents, essays, speeches, and the Constitution of the United States. Students will also read their own state’s constitution during the unit on state government. (The publisher’s website has links to state constitutions.) Both coursebooks have hardcovers, full-color photos, illustrations, and maps, and the textbook has an index.
An optional third component is the Exploring Government Student Review Pack, which includes three smaller, softcover books.
The first unit in the textbook, titled "The Biblical Basis of Government," sets the tone for a biblical Christian viewpoint that is evident throughout the course. Some readings from the Bible are used in that unit, and biblical quotes appear occasionally in other chapters.
The writing style of the textbook and some articles is more interesting than what I see in most textbooks for government since it includes a significant amount of personal commentary and opinion. For example, Lesson 43 on the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights includes a full page of “Arguments for Gun Control,” although the chapter as a whole advances the right to own guns. However, toward the end of the chapter, Notgrass opines,
All American citizens have rights. All of us also have responsibilities. When we do not respect the rights of others, and we do not fulfill our responsibilities, life breaks down for all of us. We are one country, one people. Is there not a way that all citizens and their representatives can work together to bring greater peace and safety to schools and shopping areas? Can’t we all give something to end the horror that plagues our nation? (p. 270).
Although Notgrass challenges such things as bloated government programs and spending, he sometimes explains how things arrived at their present state of affairs or provides justifications from other perspectives. His discussion of the development of the Department of Agriculture on pages 195-196 is a good example of this nuanced style of presentation.
Among the lessons are five under the heading “International Relations” that cover diplomacy, international organizations (such as the United Nations), international wars, trade, and human rights.
The 2023 edition of the textbook has been updated in several places, and the contemporary issues topics have been expanded and changed somewhat to reflect the issues that are of greatest concern now. This newest edition now has five lessons on contemporary issues, double the number in the previous edition. Examples of topics covered are election integrity, immigration, health care, and energy.
The 75 lessons in the text (one lesson per day) are presented in units of five lessons each. Each unit begins with a one-page introduction that includes a very brief overview of the unit's lessons. Books to use are listed next; these are We Hold These Truths and one of the four books for the English credit. Then a list of suggested projects gives students several choices such as essay writing, creative projects, research, or movies to watch. While there are always essay options, other suggestions vary from unit to unit. Students working for the English credit should complete at least one of these projects each week. While they might be considered optional for other students, the projects frequently challenge students to think through concepts presented in the lessons and formulate their own opinions, so I highly recommend using at least one per unit, even for students not working towards English credit.
Adding the Literature Coursework
Students who want to earn a half-credit for English will read four books: Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough, The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge, Born Again by Charles Colson, and God and Ronald Reagan by Paul Kengor. Notgrass History sells the four books as a literature package, but you might be able to borrow them from the library.
The four books and literary analysis lessons (found in the Student Review book) are optional. The unit introductions in the Exploring Government Textbook include a paragraph describing each book at the point where students should start reading it.
The books tie to the government theme tangentially as students read about important figures who were involved in government and issues they encountered. Some of these issues relate to government and public policy, while others deal with family, personal development, ethics, and faith. Using these books helps students grasp the human dimension—that government is about more than documents, laws, and bureaucracies. The books also teach students that they have a role as responsible, Christian citizens to be informed and involved.
The Student Review (one of the three books in the Student Review Pack) includes a few pages of literary analysis for each book for students to read plus questions that serve as prompts for two literary analysis essays they will write—one a full page and one a half page.
Students working toward the English credit should also choose the writing assignments from among the project options at least six times.
Student Review Pack
The three books in the Student Review Pack are the Quiz and Exam Book, the Student Review, and the Guide for Parents and Answer Key. The Student Review Pack is supposed to be optional, but it includes questions and assessment resources for government as well as the literary analysis activities.
Guide for Parents and Answer Key covers both the questions in the Student Review and the Quiz and Exam Book. It begins with a few notes about teaching the course, but these are also at the front of the textbook. More importantly, it includes information for parents about the four literature books regarding specific instances of content parents might find problematic, such as profanity and alcohol use. It also suggests three alternate books that might be used as substitutes, although there are no questions or literary analysis for them.
The Student Review book has ten questions for each lesson in the textbook and three questions for each of the readings from We Hold These Truths. Some questions require brief answers while others require lengthier answers. You can assign these for written work or discussion. Lessons on the four books to be read for the literary analysis portion of the course are inserted at the appropriate points.
The Quiz and Exam Book has fifteen quizzes (one per unit) and three exams, all drawn on material in the textbook. Questions require multiple-choice or brief answers. If students are engaging well with the weekly questions for each lesson, you might not need to use the quizzes. However, quizzes provide a simple way to ensure that students are learning the material, and they don’t require much time.
Tying it Together
Assignments at the end of each lesson in the Exploring Government textbook tie together the components of the course. Here students find the reading assignments from We Hold These Truths plus reminders to:
- continue reading the assigned book for literature (optional) and complete the literary analysis assignments upon completion of each book
- select or work on a project
- answer questions in the Student Review (optional)
- take a quiz at the end of a unit and an exam every five units (optional)
- check out optional supplemental resources available on a dedicated website page
Daily lessons should take about an hour for those working toward credit only for government. Students working toward credit for English should plan to add another hour.
Note: You might want to use Notgrass's Exploring Economics for the other semester since these two courses reflect similar points of view.
While Exploring Government is loaded with information, it is well written and does a great job of showing students why learning about government matters. Adding the literature component further enhances the study of government while providing reading material and writing assignments that are both thought-provoking and character-building.