ISEE Lower Level Reading : Identifying and Analyzing Main Idea and Theme in History Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for ISEE Lower Level Reading

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Example Questions

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Example Question #1 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Idea And Theme In History Passages

Adapted from "Crossing the Rubicon" in History of Julius Caesar by Jacob Abbott (1902)

There was a little stream in ancient times, in the north of Italy, which flowed eastward into the Adriatic Sea, called the Rubicon. This stream has been immortalized by the transactions which we are now about to describe.

The Rubicon was a very important boundary, and yet it was in itself so small and insignificant that it is now impossible to determine which of two or three little brooks here running into the sea is entitled to its name and renown. In history the Rubicon is a grand, permanent, and conspicuous stream, gazed upon with continued interest by all mankind for nearly twenty centuries; in nature it is an uncertain rivulet, for a long time doubtful and undetermined, and finally lost.

The Rubicon originally derived its importance from the fact that it was the boundary between all that part of the north of Italy which is formed by the valley of the Po, one of the richest and most magnificent countries of the world, and the more southern Roman territories. This country of the Po constituted what was in those days called the hither Gaul, and was a Roman province. It belonged now to Cæsar's jurisdiction, as the commander in Gaul. All south of the Rubicon was territory reserved for the immediate jurisdiction of the city. The Romans, in order to protect themselves from any danger which might threaten their own liberties from the immense armies which they raised for the conquest of foreign nations, had imposed on every side very strict limitations and restrictions in respect to the approach of these armies to the capital. The Rubicon was the limit on this northern side. Generals commanding in Gaul were never to pass it. To cross the Rubicon with an army on the way to Rome was rebellion and treason. Hence the Rubicon became, as it were, the visible sign and symbol of civil restriction to military power.

By crossing the Rubicon, Caesar __________.

Possible Answers:

threatened the Roman capital with his army 

violated the laws made in Gaul to protect the Empire

fulfilled a long held prophecy that the commander of Gaul would rule all of Rome

got back in time to defend the capital from barbarians 

accommodated the wishes of the Roman Senate 

Correct answer:

threatened the Roman capital with his army 

Explanation:

The author tells us that the Rubicon is the limit established by the city of Rome to protect the authority of the Roman politicians from the power of the Roman armies of Gaul. The author then states, “To cross the Rubicon with an army on the way to Rome was rebellion and treason. Hence the Rubicon became, as it were, the visible sign and symbol of civil restriction to military power.” So it is clear that by crossing the Rubicon, Caesar threatened Rome with his army. 

Example Question #2 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Narrative Social Science Passages

Adapted from Early European History Hutton Webster (1917)

It was the work of Darius to provide for his dominions a stable government which should preserve what the sword had won. The problem was difficult. The empire was a collection of many people widely different in race, language, customs, and religion. Darius did not attempt to weld the conquered nations into unity. As long as the subjects of Persia paid tribute and furnished troops for the royal army, they were allowed to conduct their own affairs with little interference from the Great King.

The entire empire, excluding Persia proper, was divided into twenty satrapies, or provinces, each one with its civil governor, or satrap. The satraps carried out the laws and collected the heavy tribute annually levied throughout the empire. In most of the provinces there were also military governors who commanded the army and reported directly to the king. This device of entrusting the civil and military functions to separate officials lessened the danger of revolts against the Persian authority. As an additional precaution Darius provided special agents whose business it was to travel from province to province and investigate the conduct of his officials. It became a proverb that "the king has many eyes and many ears."

Darius also established a system of military roads throughout the Persian dominions. The roads were provided at frequent intervals with inns, where postmen stood always in readiness to take up a letter and carry it to the next station. The Royal Road from Susa, the Persian capital, to Sardis in Lydia was over fifteen hundred miles long; but government couriers, using relays of fresh horses, could cover the distance within a week. An old Greek writer declares with admiration that "there is nothing mortal more swift than these messengers."

Which of these best summarizes the difficulties encountered by Darius at the beginning of his reign?

Possible Answers:

He inherited a large, diverse Empire comprised of inhabitants of numerous races and religions.

The Satraps were governed by corruption and binding bureaucracy.

The Persian army had grown weak and ineffectual after decades of misuse.

The royal coffers were devoid of gold and there was no reliable source of income.

He was born into a weak, decentralized kingdom that was in open rebellion.

Correct answer:

He inherited a large, diverse Empire comprised of inhabitants of numerous races and religions.

Explanation:

In the first paragraph, the author states that Darius ascended the throne after an empire had newly been conquered. It was his responsibility to protect “what the sword had won.” According to the author, “The problem was difficult. The empire was a collection of many people widely different in race, language, customs, and religion.” This is closest in meaning to “[Darius] inherited a large, diverse Empire comprised of numerous races and religions.”

Example Question #1 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Idea And Theme In History Passages

Adapted from Early European History by Hutton Webster (1917)

The Phoenicians were a Syrian people whose country was a narrow stretch of coast, about one hundred and twenty miles in length, seldom more than twelve miles in width, between the Lebanon Mountains and the sea. This tiny land could not support a large population. As the Phoenicians increased in numbers, they were obliged to betake themselves to the sea. The Lebanon cedars furnished soft, white wood for shipbuilding, and the deeply indented coast offered excellent harbors. Thus, the Phoenicians became preeminent sailors. Their great cities, Sidon and Tyre, established colonies throughout the Mediterranean and had an extensive commerce with every region of the known world.

Who, according to this passage, were a Syrian people who became great sailors?

Possible Answers:

The Greeks

The Huns

The Romans

The Phoenicians

The Lebanese

Correct answer:

The Phoenicians

Explanation:

This is a question designed to test if you can identify details. The author discusses the Phoenicians throughout the passage, and near the end of the passage, states, "Thus, the Phoenicians became preeminent sailors."

Example Question #1 : Ideas In History Passages

"What Do We Remember About History?" by Daniel Morrison (2014)

Henry the Eighth is most commonly remembered for the amusing and unique fact that he took six different wives over the course of his lifetime. There is even a famous ditty uttered by English schoolchildren to help them remember the fate of his various wives: “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.”

However, during Henry’s rule England permanently ended its long standing relationship with the Catholic Church and became forever a Protestant Kingdom. This break has had long felt repercussions up to and including the present day. Yet, in spite of the deep importance of Henry’s decision to leave the family of Catholic nations he is best known for taking six wives. This difference between importance of actions and nature of popular remembrance should tell us something about the collective understanding of history - it is often the trivial and merely interesting that survives, whilst the significant but less fascinating can fade from memory.

Which of these is the main argument of this essay?

Possible Answers:

Henry the Eighth was a terrible king and an even worse man who treated women with disdain and carelessness.

Our understanding of history has been impacted by the manner in which certain details are passed down through the generations.

Our collective understanding of history is too often focused on the entertaining rather than the significant.

The English decision to break with the Catholic church has been of great significance throughout English history.

Henry the Eighth is often misremembered in his own country.

Correct answer:

Our collective understanding of history is too often focused on the entertaining rather than the significant.

Explanation:

The main argument of this passage is best captured in the conclusion, where the author says, “This difference between importance of actions and nature of popular remembrance should tell us something about the collective understanding of history—it is often the trivial and merely interesting that survives, whilst the significant but less fascinating can fade from memory.” It is clear that the author believes “our collective understanding of history is too often focused on the entertaining rather than the significant.” Although the author does talk about Henry the Eighth for a long portion of the passage, Henry the Eighth is merely an example around which the author constructs his argument about history.

Example Question #14 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Idea And Theme In Contemporary Life Passages

"What Do We Remember About History?" by Daniel Morrison (2014)

Henry the Eighth is most commonly remembered for the unique fact that he took six different wives over the course of his lifetime. There is even a famous ditty uttered by English schoolchildren to help them remember the fate of his various wives: “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.”

However, during Henry’s rule, England permanently ended its long-standing relationship with the Catholic church and became forever a Protestant kingdom. This break has had long-felt repercussions up to and including the present day. Yet, in spite of the deep importance of Henry’s decision to leave the family of Catholic nations, he is best known for taking six wives. This difference between importance of actions and nature of popular remembrance should tell us something about the collective understanding of history—it is often the trivial and merely interesting that survives, whilst the significant but less fascinating can fade from memory.

The primary purpose of this essay is to __________.

Possible Answers:

teach a lesson about the popular understanding of history

talk about Henry the Eighth's six wives

explain how England has changed since the rule of Henry the Eighth

describe how England ended up breaking with the Catholic church

explain the significance of Henry the Eighth

Correct answer:

teach a lesson about the popular understanding of history

Explanation:

Although much of this essay talks about the significance of Henry the Eighth, this is not the primary purpose of the essay. The experience of Henry the Eighth and his memory in our collective understanding is used as an example to teach a lesson about the popular understanding of history. The primary purpose is best shown in the conclusion: "it is often the trivial and merely interesting that survives, whilst the significant but less fascinating can fade from memory.”

Example Question #3 : Ideas In History Passages

"The Holy Roman Empire" by Daniel Morrison (2014)

The Holy Roman Empire was somewhat unique among the various organized states of Middle and Early Modern Europe in that the Emperor was chosen by a group of electors. This is in stark contrast to the strict hereditary nature of English or French succession, where the position of monarch was handed down from the outgoing ruler to his closest legitimate heir, usually a son. In the Holy Roman Empire, the Emperor was chosen by seven electors, which in theory might seem to give the Empire a sort of early democratic flavor. However, in practice, only two or three families were ever able to draw on sufficient personal wealth to stand for election. Of these, the Luxembourgs and the Hapsburgs are most well known. The Hapsburgs were so successful that they were able to maintain their “elected” position for almost four centuries, and the Luxembourgs somehow still have a small country named after their family almost seven hundred years after their fall from dominance.

What is the main idea of this passage?

Possible Answers:

That the Luxembourg family is lucky to still have a country named after it.

That the English and French monarchies suffered from their direct form of inheritance.

That the Holy Roman Empire was unusual in European history because it was not based on inheritance.

That the Hapsburg family is the most powerful in European history.

That the Holy Roman Empire was neither, strictly speaking, Holy, Roman, nor an Empire.

Correct answer:

That the Holy Roman Empire was unusual in European history because it was not based on inheritance.

Explanation:

The main idea or argument of this article is that the Holy Roman Empire was unusual in European history. The title of the article suggests this, and the author highlights this at the beginning of the passage when he says, “The Holy Roman Empire was somewhat unique among the various organized states of Middle and Early Modern Europe in that the Emperor was chosen by a group of electors. This is in stark contrast to the strict hereditary nature of English or French succession." The other answer choices are either not mentioned in the text, or else are part of the author’s less significant arguments.

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

Adapted from The Man who Spoiled Napoleon’s Destiny by Rev. W. H. Fitchett, LL.D. (1899)

From March 18 to May 20, 1799—for more than sixty days and nights, that is—a little, half-forgotten, and more than half-ruined Syrian town was the scene of one of the fiercest and most dramatic sieges recorded in military history. And rarely has there been a struggle so apparently one-sided.

A handful of British sailors and Turkish irregulars were holding Acre, a town without regular defenses, against Napoleon, the most brilliant military genius of his generation, with an army of 10,000 war-hardened veterans, the "Army of Italy"—soldiers who had dared the snows of the Alps and conquered Italy, and to whom victory was a familiar experience. In their ranks military daring had reached, perhaps, its very highest point. And yet the sailors inside that ring of crumbling wall won! At Acre Napoleon experienced his first defeat; and, years after, at St. Helena, he said of Sir Sidney Smith, the gallant sailor who baffled him, "That man made me miss my destiny." It is a curious fact that one Englishman thwarted Napoleon's career in the East, and another ended his career in the West, and it may be doubted which of the two Napoleon hated most—Wellington, who finally overthrew him at Waterloo, or Sidney Smith, who, to use Napoleon's own words, made him "miss his destiny," and exchange the empire of the East for a lonely pinnacle of rock in the Atlantic.

Who does Napoleon believe “robbed him of his destiny”?

Possible Answers:

Wellington

The weather

Sir Sidney Smith

The French Government

God

Correct answer:

Sir Sidney Smith

Explanation:

This question is asking if you can identify the main point of a passage. This passage is talking about Sir Sidney Smith and Napoleon, and how Smith “robbed” Napoleon of his destiny. The answer is also directly stated in the passage's last line, when the author says, “. . . Sidney Smith, who, to use Napoleon's own words, made him "miss his destiny," and exchange the empire of the East for a lonely pinnacle of rock in the Atlantic.”

Example Question #2 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Idea And Theme In History Passages

Adapted from A Man Who Coveted Washington’s Shoes by Frank E. Stockton (1896)

The person whose story we are now about to tell was not a Jerseyman, but, as most of the incidents which make him interesting to us occurred in this state, we will give him the benefit of a few years' residence here.

This was General Charles Lee, who might well have been called a soldier of fortune. He was born in England, but the British Isles were entirely too small to satisfy his wild ambitions and his bold spirit. There are few heroes of romance who have had such a wide and varied experience, and who have engaged in so many strange enterprises. He was a brave man and very able, but he had a fault which prevented him from being a high-class soldier: he could not bear authority and was always restive under command of another, and, while always ready to tell other people what they ought to do, was never willing to be told what he ought to do.

He joined the British army when he was a young man, and he first came to this country in 1757, when General Abercrombie brought over an army to fight the French. For three years, Lee was engaged in the wilds and forests, doing battle with the Native Americans and French, and no doubt he had all the adventures an ordinary person would desire, but this experience was far from satisfactory.

What is General Charles Lee’s primary fault, according to the author?

Possible Answers:

He refuses to fight when the battle gets too intense.

He does not respect authority.

He is not a hard worker. 

He is always showing up to things late.

He abandoned his family in the British Isles. 

Correct answer:

He does not respect authority.

Explanation:

The author states that Lee had many positive traits, but one serious negative one: “He was a brave man and very able, but he had a fault which prevented him from being a high-class soldier: he could not bear authority and was always restive under command of another, and, while always ready to tell other people what they ought to do, was never willing to be told what he ought to do.”  The author faults Lee for being disobedient and disrespectful towards authority.

Example Question #2 : Ideas In History Passages

Adapted from The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon (1921)

I am going to take you to the top of the highest pyramid and I am going to ask that you imagine yourself possessed of the eyes of a hawk. Way, way off, in the distance, far beyond the yellow sands of the desert, you will see something green and shimmering. It is a valley situated between two rivers. It is the land of mystery and wonder which the Greeks called Mesopotamia—the "country between the rivers."

The names of the two rivers are the Euphrates and the Tigris. They begin their course amidst the snows of the mountains of Armenia and slowly they flow through the southern plain until they reach the muddy banks of the Persian gulf. They perform a very useful service. They turn the arid regions of Western Asia into a fertile garden.

The valley of the Nile had attracted people because it had offered them food upon fairly easy terms. The "land between the rivers" was popular for the same reason. It was a country full of promise and both the inhabitants of the northern mountains and the tribes which roamed through the southern deserts tried to claim this territory as their own and most exclusive possession. The constant rivalry between the mountaineers and the desert-nomads led to endless warfare. Only the strongest and the bravest could hope to survive, and that will explain why Mesopotamia became the home of very strong people.

What “useful” function do the Euphrates and Tigris rivers fulfill?

Possible Answers:

They allow food to grow in the dry environments of Western Asia.

They provide drinking water for the people of Egypt.

They allow trade to flourish up and down Western Asia.

They allow the people of Armenia to travel easily to Persia.

They provide drinking water for the slaves building the ancient pyramids.

Correct answer:

They allow food to grow in the dry environments of Western Asia.

Explanation:

In context, the author says, “They perform a very useful service. They turn the arid regions of Western Asia into a fertile garden.” If you understand that “arid” means dry and “fertile” means allowing food or life to grow in large amounts, then it is clear that the author is saying that the “useful function” of the two rivers is that they allow food to grow in the otherwise dry area of Western Asia. This can also be understood by reading the beginning of the next paragraph, where the author says “The valley of the Nile had attracted people because it had offered them food upon fairly easy terms. The 'land between the rivers' was popular for the same reason.”

Example Question #3 : Ideas In History Passages

Adapted from Early European History by Hutton Webster (1917)

History cannot easily go back beyond written records. These alone will preserve a full and accurate account of man's achievements. Manuscripts and books form one class of written records. The old Babylonians used tablets of soft clay, on which signs were impressed with a metal instrument. The tablets were then baked hard in an oven. The Egyptians made a kind of paper out of the papyrus, a plant native to the Nile valley. The Greeks and Romans at first used papyrus, but later they employed the more lasting parchment prepared from sheepskin. Paper seems to have been a Chinese invention. It was introduced into Europe by the Arabs during the twelfth century of our era.

History, based on written records, begins in different countries at varying dates. A few manuscripts and inscriptions found in Egypt date back three or four thousand years before Christ. The annals of Babylonia are scarcely less ancient. Trustworthy records in China and India do not extend beyond 1000 B.C. For the Greeks and Romans the commencement of the historic period must be placed about 750 B.C. The inhabitants of northern Europe did not come into the light of history until about the opening of the Christian era.

What does the author think “alone will preserve a full and accurate account of man’s achievements"?

Possible Answers:

The Egyptians 

Written records 

Inventions

The Chinese 

Art and architecture 

Correct answer:

Written records 

Explanation:

In context, the author states, “History cannot easily go back beyond written records. These alone will preserve a full and accurate account of man's achievements.” In this first sentence, he establishes that it is difficult to study a history without written records of what happened. In the second sentence, he says that as a result of this, written records will preserve the story of man’s achievements. To provide further help, “records” are stories or information about what has happened.

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