ISEE Upper Level Reading : Identifying and Analyzing Main Idea and Theme in Contemporary Life Passages

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

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Example Questions

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Example Question #1 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Humanities Passages

"Poetry and Philosophy" by Justin Bailey

As the logical positivism rose to ascendancy, poetic language was increasingly seen as merely emotive. Wittgenstein’s influential Tractatus argued that only language corresponding to observable states of affairs in the world was meaningful, thus ruling out the value of imaginative language in saying anything about the world. Poetry’s contribution was rather that it showed what could not be said, a layer of reality which Wittgenstein called the “mystical.” Despite Wittgenstein’s interest in the mystical value of poetry, his successors abandoned the mystical as a meaningful category, exiling poetry in a sort of no man’s land where its only power to move came through the empathy of shared feeling.

Yet some thinkers, like Martin Heidegger, reacted strongly to the pretensions of an instrumental theory of knowledge to make sense of the world. Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur all gave central value to poetry in their philosophical method; signifying a growing sense among continental thinkers that poetic knowing was an important key to recovering some vital way of talking about and experiencing the world that had been lost.

The author is primarily concerned with __________.

Possible Answers:

explaining various theories of why poetic language has the power to move the human spirit

enumerating the reasons why Wittgenstein and his successors were misguided in their philosophical approach

arguing that given the current trajectory of philosophy, poetry will soon no longer be studied in mainstream society

describing the mainstream marginalization of poetry among philosophers of a certain period before noting significant exceptions

exploring the contribution of philosophy to discussions of poetic method and appreciation

Correct answer:

describing the mainstream marginalization of poetry among philosophers of a certain period before noting significant exceptions

Explanation:

The first paragraph states the main argument, which can be gleaned from the first and last sentence of the paragraph. The second paragraph introduces a contrast with the word "yet" and then proceeds to enumerate three examples of philosophers who made poetry a part of their philosophical method. 

Example Question #12 : Passage Reasoning

"Conservatism" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

In American politics, there is perhaps no word that is more over-simplified than “conservative.” Many people use this term as though it has a single meaning and expresses a single historical-political outlook. Nothing could be further from the truth. The development of American conservatism must be understood as a combination of a number of strands of ideology that often coexist with great tension and difficulty. Although there are many groups that are combined in this larger assortment, two examples will suffice to show the great diversity present in this seemingly simple group.

For instance, there are the “traditionalist conservatives,” who generally are concerned with preserving Western culture and tradition against the developments of modern thought and culture. In many ways, this type of conservatism is the most “conserving”; that is, traditionalists are primarily concerned with maintaining the “old order” of Western civilization and learning. Because of these concerns, the traditionalist conservatives are very wary of any kind of major governmental program that promises to bring a “new order” into existence. While not disagreeing with the idea of progress, these conservatives believe that any such changes should occur organically, in a natural manner over a period of years. 

On the other hand, there are also the “libertarians," who are often classed as “conservatives” as well. They are surprisingly different from the traditionalist conservatives. The libertarians are primarily concerned with maximizing freedom and limiting the role of government in individual lives. In many ways, they represent the kind of modern individualism disagreed with by the traditionalists.

These two opposed groups are able to come together in the general notion of “conservatism” because of their shared attitudes toward the government, particularly the federal government. The traditionalists wish to limit the role of the federal government out of a fear that it will ruin traditional culture through radically new plans and agendas. The libertarians seek to limit it out of a desire to give individual citizens maximum freedom of choice and action. While these two branches of “conservatism” are in many ways opposed to each other, they somehow manage to coexist along with many other positions that are all called “conservative” in spite of similarly striking differences.

Based on the author’s presentation, what is the attitude of traditionalist conservatives toward social progress?

Possible Answers:

They forge alliances with libertarians to prevent it.

They believe that it should happen gradually, not through revolutions or quick changes.

They ignore it as a modern aberration.

They despise it because of their old-fashioned outlook.

They always oppose it, particularly when presented with modern arguments.

Correct answer:

They believe that it should happen gradually, not through revolutions or quick changes.

Explanation:

The passage does not say that the traditionalist conservatives oppose progress and change. It only states that they believe that it should occur in an organic manner, gradually over time. The key sentence for this is, "While not disagreeing with the idea of progress, these conservatives believe that any such changes should occur organically, in a natural manner over a period of years."

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

"Conservatism" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

In American politics, there is perhaps no word that is more over-simplified than “conservative.” Many people use this term as though it has a single meaning and expresses a single historical-political outlook. Nothing could be further from the truth. The development of American conservatism must be understood as a combination of a number of strands of ideology that often coexist with great tension and difficulty. Although there are many groups that are combined in this larger assortment, two examples will suffice to show the great diversity present in this seemingly simple group.

For instance, there are the “traditionalist conservatives,” who generally are concerned with preserving Western culture and tradition against the developments of modern thought and culture. In many ways, this type of conservatism is the most “conserving”; that is, traditionalists are primarily concerned with maintaining the “old order” of Western civilization and learning. Because of these concerns, the traditionalist conservatives are very wary of any kind of major governmental program that promises to bring a “new order” into existence. While not disagreeing with the idea of progress, these conservatives believe that any such changes should occur organically, in a natural manner over a period of years. 

On the other hand, there are also the “libertarians," who are often classed as “conservatives” as well. They are surprisingly different from the traditionalist conservatives. The libertarians are primarily concerned with maximizing freedom and limiting the role of government in individual lives. In many ways, they represent the kind of modern individualism disagreed with by the traditionalists.

These two opposed groups are able to come together in the general notion of “conservatism” because of their shared attitudes toward the government, particularly the federal government. The traditionalists wish to limit the role of the federal government out of a fear that it will ruin traditional culture through radically new plans and agendas. The libertarians seek to limit it out of a desire to give individual citizens maximum freedom of choice and action. While these two branches of “conservatism” are in many ways opposed to each other, they somehow manage to coexist along with many other positions that are all called “conservative” in spite of similarly striking differences.

What is the main point of this selection?

Possible Answers:

The word "conservative" is really senseless, for their politics are not concerned with conserving anything but with ruling.

Those who use the name "conservative" can be separated into two distinct groups, namely, the traditionalist conservatives and the libertarians.

The word "conservative," as used in American politics, describes a reality that is far more complex than many realize.

The term "conservative" should be dropped from American English usage because it is, at best, a vague term.

Conservatives are always at war internally because of their inconsistent ideals.

Correct answer:

The word "conservative," as used in American politics, describes a reality that is far more complex than many realize.

Explanation:

This passage does not aim to give an exhaustive description of conservatism. Likewise, it does not intend to critique the term "conservative." Instead, it aims to show that this group is very diverse, using two examples and explaining how they can come together in spite of their significant differences. The correct answer expresses this by noting that the word is more complex than many realize. The passage aims to show how this is the case.

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

"Preparing for Standardized Tests: Two Approaches" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

Generally speaking, there are two major camps regarding the appropriate manner by which one should approach a standardized test. On the one hand, there are those people and businesses that believe that you should learn the “tricks of the test.” This approach encourages the idea that the given exam relies on a set of “inside tricks” that will fool students who are not well-informed about the way such tricks are designed. It likewise focuses less on content then on strategies for answering questions. On the other hand, there is the camp that believes that the best way to approach an exam is to be a complete expert on the content that will be examined. While this approach focuses on teaching the subject matter that will be tested, it often focuses very little on the test-taking strategies that can aid students who are taking a given exam. Although there are numerous strong partisans regarding each approach, it must be admitted that both have their strengths and their weaknesses.

What is the main idea that this paragraph wishes to convey?

Possible Answers:

There are two major approaches to preparing for standardized tests, one based on test strategies and another based on test content; ultimately, they both have relative strengths and weaknesses.

Test-taking strategies are a key component to success in preparing for a standardized test.

It is foolish to think that someone can become an expert in examination content before taking the standardized test.

Test preparation is a great idea; no matter how you do it, you will make great improvement.

The "tricks of the test" approach is a foolish lie that has made a lot of money for those who support it.

Correct answer:

There are two major approaches to preparing for standardized tests, one based on test strategies and another based on test content; ultimately, they both have relative strengths and weaknesses.

Explanation:

Primarily, the passage outlines the differences found in two approaches to preparing for standardized tests.  However, note that at the end, it likewise does make a statement acknowledging that there are strengths and weaknesses to each approach.  Both of these aspects are necessary in forming a general statement of the main idea of this passage.

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

"The Difficulties of Writing One's First Research Paper" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

When a high school student writes his or her first research paper, he or she likely will face a number of difficulties in finding and using sources for the essay. The single most significant of these difficulties is the finding of sources for the paper. The student will likely only know about his or her topic from the discussion that has occurred in class, based on the textbook that is being used. For a research paper, however, it will be necessary to find appropriate texts in the library to support the topic about which he or she is writing. This can be quite overwhelming, for there are often so many books on a given topic that it is difficult to know where to begin if your starting point is only a high school textbook. Many students will be tempted to use every book that they find, not focusing on the most appropriate texts for the topic. On the other hand, some students will rely heavily on a single book on the topic. In this case, many things are overlooked because of the student’s narrow research. Of course, there are a number of other difficulties involved in the writing of such a paper, but the use of sources likely remains the most troublesome by far.

What is the main idea of this selection?

Possible Answers:

High school students sometimes attempt to write research papers when they really are unable to do so.

Two dangers face the high school student writing his or her first research paper, namely, extreme overuse or extreme underuse of resources.

There are so many problems with high school research papers that it would be better just to eliminate them from the curriculum entirely.

The first research paper written by a high school student is generally of rather poor quality.

Although the first research paper written by most high school students is not very focused, this improves with time.

Correct answer:

Two dangers face the high school student writing his or her first research paper, namely, extreme overuse or extreme underuse of resources.

Explanation:

The first sentence to pay attention to is the opening one: "When a high school student writes his or her first research paper, he or she likely will face a number of difficulties in finding and using sources for the essay." Clearly, this problem of sources will be the main focus of the selection. This is followed by a reaffirmation that finding sources is the "single most significant" difficulty. After explaining the problem a bit, the author gives the two possible outcomes: (1) students will use far too many books, or (2) students will rely too much on one book.

Example Question #34 : Act Reading

Adapted from “Advice to Youth” by Mark Twain (1882)

Being told I would be expected to talk here, I inquired what sort of talk I ought to make. They said it should be something suitable to youth--something didactic, instructive, or something in the nature of good advice. Very well. I have a few things in my mind which I have often longed to say for the instruction of the young; for it is in one’s tender early years that such things will best take root and be most enduring and most valuable. First, then I will say to you my young friends--and I say it beseechingly, urgently-- Always obey your parents, when they are present. This is the best policy in the long run, because if you don’t, they will make you. Most parents think they know better than you do, and you can generally make more by humoring that superstition than you can by acting on your own better judgment.

Be respectful to your superiors, if you have any, also to strangers, and sometimes to others. If a person offends you and you are in doubt as to whether it was intentional or not, do not resort to extreme measures; simply watch your chance and hit him with a brick. That will be sufficient. If you shall find that he had not intended any offense, come out frankly and confess yourself in the wrong when you struck him; acknowledge it like a man and say you didn’t mean to. 

Go to bed early, get up early--this is wise. Some authorities say get up with the sun; some say get up with one thing, others with another. But a lark is really the best thing to get up with. It gives you a splendid reputation with everybody to know that you get up with the lark; and if you get the right kind of lark, and work at him right, you can easily train him to get up at half past nine, every time--it’s no trick at all.

Now as to the matter of lying. You want to be very careful about lying; otherwise you are nearly sure to get caught. Once caught, you can never again be in the eyes to the good and the pure, what you were before. Many a young person has injured himself permanently through a single clumsy and ill finished lie, the result of carelessness born of incomplete training. Some authorities hold that the young ought not to lie at all. That of course, is putting it rather stronger than necessary; still while I cannot go quite so far as that, I do maintain, and I believe I am right, that the young ought to be temperate in the use of this great art until practice and experience shall give them that confidence, elegance, and precision which alone can make the accomplishment graceful and profitable. Patience, diligence, painstaking attention to detail--these are requirements; these in time, will make the student perfect; upon these only, may he rely as the sure foundation for future eminence. 

But I have said enough. I hope you will treasure up the instructions which I have given you, and make them a guide to your feet and a light to your understanding. Build your character thoughtfully and painstakingly upon these precepts, and by and by, when you have got it built, you will be surprised and gratified to see how nicely and sharply it resembles everybody else’s.

The primary purpose of this passage is to __________.

Possible Answers:

mock youthfulness

give unconventional advice

establish a counterargument

compile a list

establish a precedent

Correct answer:

give unconventional advice

Explanation:

The author establishes the purpose of this passage in the first paragraph. The first two sentences reveal that the author intends to use this passage to give advice. He says: “Being told I would be expected to talk here, I inquired what sort of talk I ought to make. They said it should be something suitable to youth--something didactic, instructive, or something in the nature of good advice.” From there you are required to understand the author’s tone to gather that the author feels this advice is in some way different from the advice that would more commonly be given to young people.

Example Question #3 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Idea And Theme In Contemporary Life Passages

Adapted from “How I Conquered Stage Fright” by Mark Twain (1906)

My heart goes out in sympathy to anyone who is making his first appearance before an audience of human beings. I recall the occasion of my first appearance. San Francisco knew me then only as a reporter, and I was to make my bow to San Francisco as a lecturer. I knew that nothing short of compulsion would get me to the theater. So I bound myself by a hard-and-fast contract so that I could not escape. I got to the theater forty-five minutes before the hour set for the lecture. My knees were shaking so that I didn't know whether I could stand up. If there is an awful, horrible malady in the world, it is stage-fright--and seasickness. They are a pair. I had stage-fright then for the first and last time. I was only seasick once, too. It was on a little ship on which there were two hundred other passengers. I--was--sick. I was so sick that there wasn't any left for those other two hundred passengers.

It was dark and lonely behind the scenes in that theater, and I peeked through the little peek holes they have in theater curtains and looked into the big auditorium. That was dark and empty, too. By and by it lighted up, and the audience began to arrive. I had got a number of friends of mine, stalwart men, to sprinkle themselves through the audience armed with big clubs. Every time I said anything they could possibly guess I intended to be funny, they were to pound those clubs on the floor. Then there was a kind lady in a box up there, also a good friend of mine, the wife of the governor. She was to watch me intently, and whenever I glanced toward her she was going to deliver a gubernatorial laugh that would lead the whole audience into applause.

At last I began. I had the manuscript tucked under a United States flag in front of me where I could get at it in case of need. But I managed to get started without it. I walked up and down--I was young in those days and needed the exercise--and talked and talked. Right in the middle of the speech I had placed a gem. I had put in a moving, pathetic part which was to get at the hearts and souls of my hearers. When I delivered it they did just what I hoped and expected. They sat silent and awed. I had touched them. Then I happened to glance up at the box where the Governor's wife was--you know what happened.

Well, after the first agonizing five minutes, my stage fright left me, never to return. I know if I was going to be hanged I could get up and make a good showing, and I intend to. But I shall never forget my feelings before the agony left me, and I got up here to thank you for her for helping my daughter, by your kindness, to live through her first appearance. And I want to thank you for your appreciation of her singing, which is, by the way, hereditary.

Which of the following best characterizes the author’s feelings towards his audience?

Possible Answers:

Apathy 

Hatred

Ambivalence 

Gratitude 

Disgust 

Correct answer:

Gratitude 

Explanation:

The author of this passage demonstrates his feelings for the audience in the conclusion when he says: “I got up here to thank you for her for helping my daughter, by your kindness, to live through her first appearance. And I want to thank you for your appreciation of her singing, which is, by the way, hereditary.” The author is expressing his appreciation for the kindness of the audience, which is closest in meaning to gratitude (which means a feeling of being thankful). Ambivalence means uncertainty; apathy means not caring.  

Example Question #1 : Authorial Purpose In Contemporary Life Passages

"Why Learning Multiple Languages in Graduate School is Important" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

In graduate school, students are often required to learn a number of foreign languages in addition to their regular coursework. This can be quite frustrating and difficult, for the normal courses in graduate school require significantly more reading and writing than do undergraduate courses. It is not unusual for graduate students to have regular reading assignments of several hundred pages for each course that they take. Likewise, they often write papers of much greater length than those that they wrote as undergraduate students. When language examinations are added to this difficult course load, it can be very frustrating for graduate students to try to find the time to prepare for these additional examinations.

Although these frustrations are understandable, this system has not been created solely to cause woe for graduate students. Much of the work for which these students are being prepared will focus on research. While much has been written in English about many topics, adequate research can only be done if one is able to read what people have written in other languages. For instance, there are many important articles and books written about almost every topic by European scholars. If a graduate student does not know any foreign languages, all of these article and books will be impossible to read, and hence useless to their research endeavors. This would be a great loss for a student's research. Therefore, in spite of its frustrating aspects, the language examination process is an important component of graduate school education.

What is the overall purpose of the passage?

Possible Answers:

To list frustrations that are felt about taking language examinations in graduate school

To defend the language examination system found in graduate schools

To summarize the state of language exams in graduate schools

To consider the antiquated methods of graduate school education

None of the other answers

Correct answer:

To defend the language examination system found in graduate schools

Explanation:

For this passage, it is necessary to pay attention to the whole text to find the overall purpose. The very last sentence is particularly revealing: "therefore, in spite of its frustrating aspects, the language examination process is an important component of graduate school education." In the second paragraph, author spends a significant amount of time defending the usefulness of learning other languages in graduate school. At the beginning of this paragraph, he admits that the frustrations are understandable, but nevertheless supports the helpfulness of this system; therefore, the best way to describe the author's purpose is "to defend the language examination system found in graduate schools."

Example Question #4 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Idea And Theme In Contemporary Life Passages

"The Aging of Public Transportation Systems" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

As cities develop, their public transportation systems often show signs of aging that are mixed with aspects that are quite up-to-date. An example of such a situation can be found in the transportation system in Washington DC. This system is made up of a mixture of buses and trains that connect people to locations in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. While the system has been well maintained and updated over the years, it still shows evidence that certain sections are older than others.

This is particularly noticeable when one considers the multiple lines that connect in Washington DC itself. Within the city, there are five different sets of tracks that run in various directions and to sundry places. A number of the newer lines are in excellent condition and rarely break down; however, the case of the red line is somewhat different. This oldest line of the metro train system often has issues because of its age, experiencing a number of track and signal issues even at rush hour when the overall system is its most efficient. Admittedly, the transportation authority is working to update this line and make it less problematic. Still, until this work is completed, it is obvious to all who are familiar with the metro train system that the red line is the oldest and most out of date.

What is the main idea that this passage seeks to express?

Possible Answers:

The Washington DC metro train system is perhaps the most vexing of all such systems in the United States.

Transportation systems in cities are always up-to-date, though an exception can be found in the example of the Washington DC transportation system.

City transportation systems often connect multiple states together, as can be seen in the example of the Washington DC transportation system.

Transportation systems in cities often are a mix of the old and the new, as is evident from the example of the Washington DC transportation system.

Transportation systems in cities are almost always out of date, as is evident from the example of the Washington DC transportation system.

Correct answer:

Transportation systems in cities often are a mix of the old and the new, as is evident from the example of the Washington DC transportation system.

Explanation:

The main idea for this selection is directly state in the opening sentence: "As cities develop, their public transportation systems often show signs of aging that are mixed with aspects that are quite up-to-date." Although the second paragraph does focus on issues with the Washington DC red line, it likewise makes the point that this is in contrast to the newer lines that rarely break down; therefore, the best way to express the main idea of this selection is by stating, "Transportation systems in cities often are a mix of the old and the new, as is evident from the example of the Washington DC transportation system."

Example Question #15 : Content Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from What I Think and Feel at Twenty-Five (1922) by F. Scott Fitzgerald

As a man grows older it stands to reason that his vulnerability increases. Three years ago, for instance, I could be hurt in only one way—through myself. If my best friend’s wife had her hair torn off by an electric washing-machine, I was grieved, of course. I would make my friend a long speech full of “old mans,” and finish up with a paragraph from Washington’s Farewell Address; but when I’d finished I could go to a good restaurant and enjoy my dinner as usual. In fact I was pretty much invulnerable. I put up a conventional wail whenever a ship was sunk or a train got wrecked; but I don’t suppose, if the whole city of Chicago had been wiped out, I’d have lost a night’s sleep over it—unless something led me to believe that St. Paul was the next city on the list. Even then I could have moved my luggage over to Minneapolis and rested pretty comfortably all night.

But that was three years ago when I was still a young man. I was only twenty-two. Now, I’m vulnerable. I’m vulnerable in every way. I used to have about ten square feet of skin vulnerable to chills and fevers. Now I have about twenty. I have not personally enlarged, the twenty feet includes the skin of my family, but I might as well have, because if a chill or fever strikes any bit of that twenty feet of skin I begin to shiver. And so I ooze gently into middle-age; for the true middle-age is not the acquirement of years, but the acquirement of a family. The incomes of the childless have wonderful elasticity. Two people require a room and a bath; a couple with child requires the millionaire’s suite on the sunny side of the hotel. And yet I think that marriage is the most satisfactory institution we have. I’m simply stating my belief that when Life has used us for its purposes it takes away all our attractive qualities and gives us, instead, ponderous but shallow convictions of our own wisdom and “experience.” The older I grow the more I get so I don’t know anything. If I had been asked to do this article about five years ago it might have been worth reading.

From the context of the whole passage, what can be inferred about the author’s opinions on the “wisdom and experience” of middle-age?

Possible Answers:

It cannot replace good humor.

It is illusory.

It is important for raising a family.

It is necessary for individual growth.

It is a distant longing.

Correct answer:

It is illusory.

Explanation:

The author contends that the “wisdom and experience” of middle-age are illusory sensations. Throughout the whole passage the author makes reference to the growing vulnerability that accompanies middle-age.  The author says “I’m simply stating my belief that when Life has used us for its purposes it takes away all our attractive qualities and gives us, instead, ponderous but shallow convictions of our own wisdom and 'experience.' The older I grow the more I get so I don’t know anything.” In addition to admitting his own feelings about growing older the author disparages middle-aged wisdom as “shallow convictions” and even goes to the length of putting experience in quotations.

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