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

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

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Example Questions

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Example Question #1 : Argumentative Social Science Passages

Adapted from Citizenship in a Republic (1910) by Theodore Roosevelt

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Which of the following best captures the attitude of the author towards “critics”?

Possible Answers:

The author has no strong opinion on critics.

The author feels critics should not be praised over those who actually strive to achieve something.

The author feels that all critics are significant measures of social understanding.

The author finds critics to be worthless and immoral.

The author lauds critical analysis as the most accurate measure of the greatness of an individual.

Correct answer:

The author feels critics should not be praised over those who actually strive to achieve something.

Explanation:

The author of this passage describes, in the introduction, how critics should not receive credit for pointing out the flaws in the actions of those who “do” things. To the author the critic is merely a biased observer, intent on pointing out the mistakes of others and little inclined towards doing anything productive themselves. The correct answer is that “The author feels critics should not be praised over those who actually strive to achieve something.” Many students might have answered that “The author finds critics to be worthless and immoral,” but the words “worthless” and “immoral” are not explicitly used by the author and the tone is slightly less harsh than those words might imply.

Example Question #3 : Isee Upper Level (Grades 9 12) Reading Comprehension

Adapted from The Man with the Muck-Rake by Theodore Roosevelt (1906)

There are in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man, whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, business, or social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform or in a book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful.

The liar is no whit better than the thief, and if his mendacity takes the form of slander he may be worse than most thieves. It puts a premium upon knavery untruthfully to attack an honest man, or even with hysterical exaggeration to assail a bad man with untruth. An epidemic of indiscriminate assault upon character does no good, but very great harm. The soul of every scoundrel is gladdened whenever an honest man is assailed, or even when a scoundrel is untruthfully assailed.

The primary purpose of this passage is to __________.

Possible Answers:

encourage the use of slander to bring about political change

discourage the common man from political participation

urge truthful criticism of political immorality

discuss the art of lying

highlight the corruption in contemporary political practice

Correct answer:

urge truthful criticism of political immorality

Explanation:

The second paragraph focuses on emphasizing the importance of truthful criticism, as opposite to slanderous assailment. The first paragraph discusses the need to regulate and relentless expose the immorality of political and economic society. The correct answer then is that the primary purpose of this passage is to urge truthful criticism of political immorality. Of the four incorrect answer choices the only other possible answer could be: “to highlight the corruption in contemporary political practice.” But, this answer choice is too limited in scope and only references one aspect of the passage. Always choose the most comprehensive answer choice.

Example Question #1 : Main Idea, Details, Opinions, And Arguments In Narrative Social Science 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:

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

accommodated the wishes of the Roman Senate 

violated the laws made in Gaul to protect the Empire

threatened the Roman capital with his army 

got back in time to defend the capital from barbarians 

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 #5 : Literal Understanding In Nonfiction Passages

Adapted from Early European History (1917) by Hutton Webster

A medieval village usually contained several classes of laborers. There might be a number of freemen, who paid a fixed rent, either in money or produce, for the use of their land. Then there might also be a few slaves in the lord's household or at work on his domain. By this time, however, slavery had about died out in Western Europe. Most of the peasants were serfs.

Serfdom represented a stage between slavery and freedom. A slave belonged to his master; he was bought and sold like other belongings. A serf had a higher position, for he could not be sold apart from the land nor could his holding be taken from him. He was fixed to the soil. On the other hand, a serf ranked lower than a freeman, because he could not change his house, nor marry outside the manor, nor hand down his goods, without the permission of his lord.

Which of these accurately states the hierarchy between serfs, slaves, and freemen in Medieval Europe?

Possible Answers:

Serfs are less free than slaves, but more free than freemen.

Slaves, serfs and freemen are all equally free to live however they please.

Serfs are freer than slaves, but less free than freemen.

Serfs are less free than slaves and freemen.

Serfs are freer than slaves and freemen.

Correct answer:

Serfs are freer than slaves, but less free than freemen.

Explanation:

The author discusses how freemen are former slaves who have been granted freedom. He goes on to list the various things that freemen can do that serfs cannot; this suggests that freemen have more independence than serfs. Likewise, serfs are not directly property in the way that slaves are, which suggests serfs have more independence than slaves. The correct answer is therefore “Serfs are freer than slaves, but less free than freemen.” This is confirmed by the author when he says, “Serfdom represented a stage between slavery and freedom.”

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

What is the "destiny” that Napoleon misses out on?

Possible Answers:

To live on a rock in the Atlantic

To be Emperor of the East

To be named protector of France

To die in Syria

To be General of the Army of Italy

Correct answer:

To be Emperor of the East

Explanation:

The author says that Napoleon felt he had missed out on his destiny when Sir Sidney Smith defeats him at Acre. The author says: “. . . 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.” Here “his destiny” is equated with “the empire of the East,” so you can infer that Napoleon’s destiny is “to be Emperor of the East.”

Example Question #2 : Isee Middle Level (Grades 7 8) Reading Comprehension

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

God

The French Government

Sir Sidney Smith

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 #111 : Social Studies

Adapted from Women’s Political Future by Frances E. W. Harper (1893)

The world has need of all the spiritual aid that woman can give for the social advancement and moral development of the human race. The tendency of the present age, with its restlessness, religious upheavals, failures, blunders, and crimes, is toward broader freedom, an increase of knowledge, the emancipation of thought, and recognition of the brotherhood of man; in this movement woman, as the companion of man, must be an equal. So close is the bond between man and woman that you cannot raise one without lifting the other. The world cannot move without woman's sharing in the movement, and to help give a right impetus to that movement is woman's highest privilege.

If the fifteenth century discovered America to the Old World, the nineteenth is discovering woman to herself. Not the opportunity of discovering new worlds, but that of filling this old world with fairer and higher aims than the greed of gold and the lust of power, is hers. Through weary, wasting years men have destroyed, dashed in pieces, and overthrown, but today we stand on the threshold of woman's era, and woman's work is grandly constructive. In her hand are possibilities whose use or abuse must tell upon the political life of the nation, and send their influence for good or evil across the track of unborn ages.

From the whole of this passage, what does the author likely believe will be the product of women’s increased political participation?

Possible Answers:

Reassertion of male dominance

Social unrest

Moderation of human ambitions

Political discord

Constructive good

Correct answer:

Constructive good

Explanation:

The author makes direct reference to her belief in the ability of women to have a positive effect on the growth of human society when she says: “Today we stand on the threshold of woman's era, and woman's work is grandly constructive.” This evidence, combined with the overall tone of the passage, should give enough information to answer that the author believes increased female participation will lead to constructive good.

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 prehistoric period is commonly divided, according to the character of the materials used for tools and weapons, into the Age of Stone and the Age of Metals. The one is the age of savagery; the other is the age of barbarism or semi-civilization.

Man's earliest implements were those that lay ready to his hand. A branch from a tree served as a spear; a thick stick in his strong arms became a powerful club. Later, perhaps, came the use of a hard stone such as flint, which could be chipped into the forms of arrowheads, axes, and spear tips. The first stone implements were so rude in shape that it is difficult to believe them of human workmanship. They may have been made several hundred thousand years ago. After countless centuries of slow advance, early people learned to fasten wooden handles to their stone tools and weapons and also to use such materials as jade and granite, which could be ground and polished into a variety of forms. Stone implements continued to be made during the greater part of the prehistoric period. Every region of the world has had a Stone Age.  Its length is reckoned, not by centuries, but by millennia.

The Age of Metals, compared with its predecessor, covers a brief expanse of time. The use of metals came in not much before the dawn of history. The earliest civilized peoples, the Babylonians and Egyptians, when we first become acquainted with them, appear to be passing from the use of stone implements to those of metal. Copper was the first metal in common use. The credit for the invention of copper tools seems to belong to the Egyptians. At a very early date they were working the copper mines on the peninsula of Sinai. The Babylonians probably obtained their copper from the same region. Another source of this metal was the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean. The Greek name of the island means "copper." But copper tools were soft and would not keep an edge. Some ancient smith, more ingenious than his fellows, discovered that the addition of a small part of tin to the copper produced a new metal—bronze—harder than the old, yet capable of being molded into a variety of forms. At least as early as 3000 BCE we find bronze taking the place of copper in both Egypt and Babylonia. Somewhat later bronze was introduced into the island of Crete, then along the eastern coast of Greece, and afterwards into other European countries.

The introduction of iron occurred in comparatively recent times. At first it was a scarce, and therefore a very precious, metal. The Egyptians seem to have made little use of iron before 1500 BCE They called it "the metal of heaven," as if they obtained it from meteorites. In the Greek Homeric poems, composed about 900 BCE or later, we find iron considered so valuable that a lump of it is one of the chief prizes at athletic games. In the first five books of the Bible iron is mentioned only thirteen times, though copper and bronze are referred to forty-four times. Iron is more difficult to work than either copper or bronze, but it is vastly superior to those metals in hardness and durability. Hence it gradually displaced them throughout the greater part of the Old World.

What advantage did bronze have over copper?

Possible Answers:

It was stronger and could be more easily shaped.

It was considerably stronger, although slightly less malleable.

It was weaker, but could be much more easily shaped.

It was considerably easier to mine, and much more malleable.

It was sharper and did not require the use of tin.

Correct answer:

It was stronger and could be more easily shaped.

Explanation:

The author argues “But copper tools were soft and would not keep an edge. Some ancient smith, more ingenious than his fellows, discovered that the addition of a small part of tin to the copper produced a new metal—bronze—harder than the old, yet capable of being molded into a variety of forms.” Here the author first states why copper was deficient—it was “soft and would not keep an edge”—and then explains how bronze is better because it is “harder than the old, yet capable of being molded."

Example Question #2 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Idea And Theme 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 Holy Roman Empire was unusual in European history because it was not based on inheritance.

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

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

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

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.

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