HSPT Reading : Main Ideas in Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for HSPT Reading

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Example Questions

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Example Question #1 : Main Idea

St. Augustine is often interpreted in light of many Christian disputes. This is understandable, given that he influenced almost all of the religious debates that occurred in Western Europe for over a millennium; however, it is problematic to view his works merely in terms of these later questions and problems. He was a man of a much earlier era, lacking much of the learning of the Middle Ages. In contrast to this later period, with its heavy reliance on Aristotle, Augustine thought much more like the Stoic philosophers.

Which of the following sentences would best conclude this paragraph?

Possible Answers:

Therefore, it is best to interpret his thought by considering the questions asked by the Stoic philosophers, not the questions related to later theological problems.

Although they never met, Aristotle and Augustine would have agreed on many points.

Augustine's thought is historically very important, especially because of its connection to ancient Rome.

Augustine's thought is therefore quite out of date and should be ignored by enlightened people.

It is therefore necessary to trace the connections of Augustine to Aristotle in order to understand him aright.

Correct answer:

Therefore, it is best to interpret his thought by considering the questions asked by the Stoic philosophers, not the questions related to later theological problems.

Explanation:

The main point of this paragraph is to note that St. Augustine is often interpreted in a problematic manner. While he was influential on many later debates, many people focus solely on those debates, much to the neglect of the original "environment" of his thought. The correct answer is the one that notes that correct study of Augustine requires us to understand the Stoics philosophers better and to read him in light of their questions.

Example Question #111 : Social Studies

While the Gutenberg press was perhaps one of the greatest inventions of all time, we should not let its importance blind us to other very important events in the history of linguistic development. Granted, the efficiency of printing allowed for the dissemination of much learning in Europe. Still, such printing was not unique to Europe, and even in the scope of world history, there are several events that are equally as miraculous regarding the transmission of knowledge.

For instance, most people overlook the amazing nature of the first time that human beings communicated with spoken language. Perhaps there were simple signs by which these early humans could indicate their needs to each other; however, when the first event of person-to-person speech occurred, it was far more marvelous than simple practical communication. Such speech was like a sharing in ideas. When true speech happened, persons were able to communicate knowledge to each other, freeing it from its isolation in one lonely person. By means of such speech, knowledge could be orally transmitted from generation to generation, thus preserving wisdom in a way that is completely impossible without speech.

Of course, such spoken tradition is very fragile, relying on memories and stories that are passed down from generation to generation. For this reason, the invention of writing is extremely important. In contrast to the spoken word, the written word can continue to exist and be useful so long as it can be read intelligently. Likewise, much more can be recorded than ever could be remembered by someone with the best of memories. Indeed, once these records are written, copies can be sent to anyone who is able to read the language in question. Just so, it can be translated into written copies to be read by others. For these (as well as many other reasons) the invention of writing was a very significant event in history, greatly expanding the possibilities for the exchange of knowledge.

Thus, the printing press is quite important, but it is part of a larger story. Like both spoken and written communication, it allows human beings to communicate knowledge not only to each other but also across multiple generations. Often, we think of the press merely in its ability to provide a great number of books in a short period of time; however, when considered as a chapter in this longer tale, it likewise appears as the means by which humanity is able to conquer time by allowing the knowledge of today to live for multiple generations.

What is the main idea of this selection?

Possible Answers:

The Gutenberg press was in fact a rather unimportant invention compared to a number of others.

The Gutenberg press is the single greatest achievement of human history.

The Gutenberg press should be ignored by historians after many years of over-emphasis.

The Gutenberg press is a fascinating case study but really nothing more.

The Gutenberg press should be understood as part of a longer history of the development of human communication.

Correct answer:

The Gutenberg press should be understood as part of a longer history of the development of human communication.

Explanation:

This whole selection aims to show that the significance of the Gutenberg press should be understood in light of the importance of speech and writing. From the beginning, it acknowledges that it was an important invention; however, it follows by providing a short explanation of how speech and writing are likewise very important means of human communication. The closing paragraph repeats the main point, namely that the press was important but is really part of a larger history.

Example Question #62 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Ideas In Social Science Or History Passages

While the Gutenberg press was perhaps one of the greatest inventions of all time, we should not let its importance blind us to other very important events in the history of linguistic development. Granted, the efficiency of printing allowed for the dissemination of much learning in Europe. Still, such printing was not unique to Europe, and even in the scope of world history, there are several events that are equally as miraculous regarding the transmission of knowledge.

For instance, most people overlook the amazing nature of the first time that human beings communicated with spoken language. Perhaps there were simple signs by which these early humans could indicate their needs to each other; however, when the first event of person-to-person speech occurred, it was far more marvelous than simple practical communication. Such speech was like a sharing in ideas. When true speech happened, persons were able to communicate knowledge to each other, freeing it from its isolation in one lonely person. By means of such speech, knowledge could be orally transmitted from generation to generation, thus preserving wisdom in a way that is completely impossible without speech.

Of course, such spoken tradition is very fragile, relying on memories and stories that are passed down from generation to generation. For this reason, the invention of writing is extremely important. In contrast to the spoken word, the written word can continue to exist and be useful so long as it can be read intelligently. Likewise, much more can be recorded than ever could be remembered by someone with the best of memories. Indeed, once these records are written, copies can be sent to anyone who is able to read the language in question. Just so, it can be translated into written copies to be read by others. For these (as well as many other reasons) the invention of writing was a very significant event in history, greatly expanding the possibilities for the exchange of knowledge.

Thus, the printing press is quite important, but it is part of a larger story. Like both spoken and written communication, it allows human beings to communicate knowledge not only to each other but also across multiple generations. Often, we think of the press merely in its ability to provide a great number of books in a short period of time; however, when considered as a chapter in this longer tale, it likewise appears as the means by which humanity is able to conquer time by allowing the knowledge of today to live for multiple generations.

What is the main idea of the third paragraph?

Possible Answers:

To give an example of the inventiveness of human authors

To transition back from discussion of speech to discussion of the Gutenberg press

To show the worthlessness of speech

To introduce and explain the benefits of the written word

To explain the first historical event of writing

Correct answer:

To introduce and explain the benefits of the written word

Explanation:

The third paragraph opens with a transition sentence that intends to show that the spoken tradition discussed in the second paragraph is "fragile," that is weak and likely to fail over time. From this transition, it discusses the importance of writing (without judging speech in a completly negative fashion). The remainder of the paragraph explains how writing is able to last for a much longer time than speech. Likewise, it observes how it expands the possibilities for the exchange of knowledge.

Example Question #2 : Main Idea

There are two great mistakes in modern times regarding the possibility of knowing whether or not God exists. On the one hand, there are a number of people who believe that any natural knowledge of God is impossible. Among the ranks of such people are included not only scientists and atheists. There are likewise very religious people who believe that God is not at all known without religion. On the other hand there are those who believe that God’s existence is easily proven. Each of these positions is inadequate, though they do note truths that should not be overlooked.

Those who defend the possibility of knowing God’s existence without religion could be said to be members of a tradition of “natural theology.” This type of thought has taken many forms over the centuries; however, itscentral claim is that human knowledge can consider things like motion, change, beings, beauty, or other natural realities in order to know God as the source of motion, being, beauty, and so forth. This tradition has had many defenders, and it should not be quickly dismissed as a mere “left over” from another era.

Nevertheless, many of its proponents act as though its conclusions are very obvious and easily reached. This, however, is not actually the case, for such natural theology admittedly deals with profound, difficult questions. Inasmuch as the opponents of natural theology reject such simplistic arguments, they offer an honest critique; however, it is also very important to note that this other extreme position ultimately means that religion is completely irrational. While this might perhaps be acceptable for a dedicated atheist, it is unlikely that a religious person would want to say that he has “no rational reason” to believe in God.

These two positions ultimately are too extreme in their claims. The best approach to finding the truth of the matter is in considering the strengths and weaknesses of each argument. It is important to understand how religion is more than complete irrationality, for it has had an undeniably positive influence on much of culture and history. Indeed, it is also necessary to consider how there have been honest philosophers who believed in God without being religious in any explicit manner. On the other hand, it is necessary to admit that belief does not come naturally to many people as often seems to be implied by those who strongly defend the possibility of natural theology.

What is the main idea of this selection?

Possible Answers:

Atheists are generally correct to point out the difficulty of proving the existence of God.

Two basic solutions regarding the possibility of demonstrating the existence of God are too extreme and simplistic.

There have been many defenders of natural theology through the centuries.

Proof of the existence of God is relatively simple, at least when you consider the long history of such proofs.

Even religious people believe that the existence of God is not able to be known without religion.

Correct answer:

Two basic solutions regarding the possibility of demonstrating the existence of God are too extreme and simplistic.

Explanation:

Although the argument of this essay is somewhat poorly structured, the author clearly wants to argue that there are two extreme positions regarding potential proofs of the existence of God.  This is stated clearly in both the first and last paragraph:

(1) There are two great mistakes in modern times regarding the possibility of knowing whether or not God exists.

(2) These two positions ultimately are too extreme in their claims.

Despite the weaknesses of the argumentation, this is clearly what the author wishes to express.

Example Question #3 : Main Idea

It is very naïve to think that the modern world arose out of nowhere after years of darkness. Still, this simple explanation has great popularity, though historical studies show it to be far from the case. A great example for this is the case of Rene Descartes. Almost everyone thinks he was completely original in his way of thinking about the world.

Which of the following sentences would best conclude this paragraph?

Possible Answers:

Though surprising, this one case shows that a new idea can come without any preceding ancestors.

Indeed, he was a man of great insight, who was barely equalled by anyone before or after him in all of history.

In fact, his thought was so new that few have ever understood him properly.

In fact, he was very much a thinker of his period and has many connections with the problems and questions of the "so-called" dark years before him.

Such originality is, of course, overrated. Many old things are very enjoyable and informative.

Correct answer:

In fact, he was very much a thinker of his period and has many connections with the problems and questions of the "so-called" dark years before him.

Explanation:

The main idea of this paragraph is that new ideas do not just "spring up" but instead grow out of certain environments and contexts. The correct answer is the sentence that expresses how this applies to the example that is cited in the paragraph, namely that of Rene Descartes. All of the other sentences do not close out the paragraph by expressing that the common opinion about Descartes is really naïve.

Example Question #4 : Main Idea

"Chesterton on Virtues and Vices" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

The British author G.K. Chesterton once wrote that the modern world was not really a combination of evils brought about by mere vices being unleashed. Instead, following his normal paradoxical style, Chesterton spoke of the modern world as having been filled with “virtues gone mad.” He believed that Christian notions of things like pity and truth had been split apart in an unhealthy way. Without a sense of honesty, pity could become quite untruthful and deceptive. Likewise, unbridled truth could be come quite nefarious and pitiless. Without a broader context, such virtues could become quite wild and indeed vicious.

Chesterton’s remark is more insightful than might appear at first glance. For instance, it has been confirmed, in part at least, by the historical research undertaken by men like Professor Étienne Gilson. Gilson, an historian of philosophy in the twentieth century, did much of his early work proving that many of the strange positions of Rene Déscartes, a modern man, were actually made up of pieces taken from earlier Christian theologies and philosophies. Although Gilson’s work must be supplemented by newer research, his work remains a confirmation of at least some aspects of Chesterton’s lighthearted reflection. Indeed, a contemporary of Gilson’s, Jacques Maritain, likewise performed similar researches, though his perspective was not historical but speculative.

Which sentence in the second paragraph is not related to the overall main idea of that paragraph?

Possible Answers:

Although, Gilson’s work must be supplemented by newer research, his work remains a confirmation of at least some aspects of Chesterton’s lighthearted reflection.  

Chesterton’s remark is more insightful than might appear at first glance.  

Indeed, a contemporary of Gilson’s, Jacques Maritain, likewise performed similar researches, though his perspective was not historical but speculative.

Gilson, an historian of philosophy in the twentieth century, did much of his early work proving that many of the strange positions of Rene Déscartes, a modern man, were actually made up of pieces taken from earlier Christian theologies and philosophies.  

For instance, it has been confirmed, in part at least, by the historical research undertaken by men like Professor Étienne Gilson.

Correct answer:

Indeed, a contemporary of Gilson’s, Jacques Maritain, likewise performed similar researches, though his perspective was not historical but speculative.

Explanation:

The key to answering a question like this is by first discerning the main idea of the paragraph in question. This paragraph wishes to provide confirmation for the assertion that Chesterton's observation (noted in the first paragraph) has some merit. It particularly does so by appealing to the historical research done by men like Gilson. Note that the last sentence, however, talks about Maritain's researches, which are said to be "speculative" not historical. "Speculative" research is that which is based on reconstructions and guesses. In a looser sense, it can also mean something that is more "academic" or "philosophical" than something historical. This really has nothing to do with the main idea of this paragraph, which merely wants to remark about the historical works that partially confirmed Chesterton's remark.

Example Question #5 : Main Idea

Adapted from “A Definition of a Gentleman” by John Henry Newman (1852)

It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;--all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make everyone at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favors while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best.

Which quality of a “gentleman” does the author of this passage focus on?

Possible Answers:

Intellect 

Upbringing

Abrasiveness 

Courage

Magnanimity

Correct answer:

Magnanimity

Explanation:

The author of this passage describes the qualities of a “gentleman” as being predominantly magnanimous in intention and action. He describes a “gentleman” as being “occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him.” Which is another way of saying that a “gentleman’s” primary concern should be ensuring that other people’s lives are as carefree and satisfactory as possible. To the author kindness and selflessness are central to the make-up of a “gentleman.” The word magnanimous refers to great generosity.

Example Question #41 : Comprehension

Many languages have interesting words and expressions that combine seemingly unconnected concepts in order to express very peculiar things. For instance, take the case of “Augenmusik” in German. This word literally means “eye music,” which at first seems to make absolute no sense; however, a simple example can show that it actually expresses a very peculiar fact about how music can “in a sense” be seen. Such “Augenmusik” has hidden patterns and details that are most easily known not by hearing but by looking at the script itself. There are many other such words in German but in English as well. Indeed, they are so numerous that it is almost impossible to count them.

Which of the following best summarizes the main idea of this paragraph?

Possible Answers:

Languages are generally a mashup of contradictory elements that somehow manage to function in spite of their seemingly endless contradictions.

Words like "Augenmusik" are absolutely necessary to express complex phenomena in the world, which is too beautiful to be described in a few simple phrases.

Many languages rely upon interesting constructions of seemingly contradictory or senseless sets of words that, in reality, describe quite interesting phenomena.

German has many words like "Augenmusik" that are amusing when taken literally but very informative when considered in their real meaning.

"Augenmusik" is quite difficult to describe merely when listening to it, but once you see the musical score, it is completely obvious.

Correct answer:

Many languages rely upon interesting constructions of seemingly contradictory or senseless sets of words that, in reality, describe quite interesting phenomena.

Explanation:

The main point of this paragraph is to remark about this strange general phenomenon in languages, namely the combining of seemingly contradictory words to describe somewhat peculiar and interesting phenomena. The example of "Augenmusik" is provided to give a concrete instance of this. Still, don't be distracted by this. Notice that the paragraph ends with a more general statement, reminding you of the overall generality of the claim of the paragraph.

Example Question #7 : Critical Comprehension

Adapted from "The Study of Poetry" in Essays in Criticism: Second Series by Matthew Arnold (1888)

"The future of poetry is immense because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, humanity, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialized itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry."

Let me be permitted to quote these words of my own as uttering the thought which should, in my opinion, go with us and govern us in all our study of poetry. We should conceive of poetry worthily, and more highly than it has been the custom to conceive of it. We should conceive of it as capable of higher uses, and called to higher destinies, than those which in general men have assigned to it hitherto. More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us. Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete, and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry. Science, I say, will appear incomplete without it. For finely and truly does Wordsworth call poetry “the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science,” and what is a countenance without its expression? Again, Wordsworth finely and truly calls poetry “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge”; our religion, parading evidences such as those on which the popular mind relies now; our philosophy, pluming itself on its reasonings about causation and finite and infinite being; what are they but the shadows and dreams and false shows of knowledge?

The main purpose of the passage is to __________.

Possible Answers:

demonstrate the breadth of knowledge that is embedded in poetry

emphasize the enduring nature of poetry and its inherent value

examine the ability of poetry to transcend daily life

demonstrate the inferior nature of poetry compared to religion and science

explain the beautiful aesthetic of poetry and its divinity

Correct answer:

emphasize the enduring nature of poetry and its inherent value

Explanation:

Arnold discusses poetry in terms of its high value and the longevity of its influence in comparison to that of religion, philosophy, and science. He perceives poetry as being able to remain significant due to its unique nature. Arnold's arguments about the value of poetry in comparison to other fields are primarily focused on the inherent value of poetry. This can be seen in lines such as "Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete, and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry. Science, I say, will appear incomplete without it." 

Example Question #1 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Narrative Humanities Passages

Adapted from Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads by John A. Lomax (1910)

The big ranches of the West are now being cut up into small farms. The nester has come, and come to stay. Gone is the buffalo and the free grass of the open plain—even the stinging lizard, the horned frog, the centipede, the prairie dog, the rattlesnake, are fast disappearing. Save in some of the secluded valleys of southern New Mexico, the old-time round-up is no more; the trails to Kansas and to Montana have become grass-grown or lost in fields of waving grain; the maverick steer, the regal longhorn, has been supplanted by his unpoetic but more beefy and profitable Polled Angus, Durham, and Hereford cousins from across the seas. The changing and romantic West of the early days lives mainly in story and in song. The last figure to vanish is the cowboy, the animating spirit of the vanishing era. He sits his horse easily as he rides through a wide valley, enclosed by mountains, clad in the hazy purple of coming night,—with his face turned steadily down the long, long road, "the road that the sun goes down." Dauntless, reckless, without the unearthly purity of Sir Galahad though as gentle to a woman as King Arthur, he is truly a knight of the twentieth century. A vagrant puff of wind shakes a corner of the crimson handkerchief knotted loosely at his throat; the thud of his pony's feet mingling with the jingle of his spurs is borne back; and as the careless, gracious, lovable figure disappears over the divide, the breeze brings to the ears, faint and far yet cheery still, the refrain of a cowboy song.

Which of the following does NOT fit with the author’s description of the cowboy?

Possible Answers:

Romantic

Heroic

Hot-headed

Symbolic

Daring

Correct answer:

Hot-headed

Explanation:

The author describes the cowboy in a very positive light: “Dauntless, reckless . . . he is truly a knight of the twentieth century.” From that passage alone, we can tell that the author thinks of the cowboy not only as daring, but also as a romantic hero and a symbol of the era. He does not mention anything about the cowboys’ temper, and “hot-headed” does not fit with this description.

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