LSAT Reading : Main Idea of Comparative Reading Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for LSAT Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Analyzing Comparative Reading Passages

"The Passing of the Armies" by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (1915) Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a Brevet Major-General of U.S. Volunteers who was present at General Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865. In the following paragraphs he describes a portion of one of the final battles of the Civil War.

The attack was impetuous; the musketry hot. Major Glenn with his six companies in skirmishing order dashed through the stream and struck the enemy's breastworks front and flank. In a moment everything started loose. The entire brigade forded the stream and rolled forward, closing upon Glenn right and left, and the whole command swept onward like a wave, carrying all before it a mile or more up the road, to the buildings of the Lewis Farm. The enemy now re-enforced made a decided stand, and the fight became sharp. But our enveloping line pressed them so severely that they fell back after each struggle to the edge of a thick wood, where a large body had gathered behind a substantial breastwork of logs and earth.

A withering volley breaks our line into groups. Courage and resolution are great, but some other sentiment mightier for the moment controls our men; a backward movement begins, but the men retire slowly, bearing their wounded with them, and even some of their dead. The enemy, seeing this recoil, pour out of their shelter and make a dash upon our broken groups, but only to be dashed back in turn hand to hand in eddying whirls. And seized by our desperate fellows, so many are dragged along as prisoners in the receding tide that it is not easy to tell which side is the winning one. Much of the enemy's aim is unsteady, for the flame and murk of their thickening fire in the heavy moist air are blown back into their eyes by the freshening south wind. But reinforcements are coming in, deepening and broadening their line beyond both our flanks. Now roar and tumult of motion for a fierce pulse of time, then again a quivering halt. At length one vigorous dash drives the assailants into the woods again with heavy loss. We had cleared the field, and thought it best to be content with that for the present. We reform our lines each side the buildings of the Lewis Farm, and take account of the situation.

Which of the following statements most accurately reflects the main idea of the passage?

Possible Answers:

A fierce battle between Union and Confederate troops raged back and forth, eventually leaving Union troops in command of the field

The battle went exactly according to the Union general's plans

Confederate troops showed a great deal more bravery in the battle than the Union troops

Many troops on both sides fled the field due to cowardice

Correct answer:

A fierce battle between Union and Confederate troops raged back and forth, eventually leaving Union troops in command of the field

Explanation:

Although Chamberlain relates how some troops retreated, he specifically says that this was NOT due to cowardice. In fact, troops retreated slowly and attempted to take their wounded comrades with them. He also does not say that Confederate troops showed greater bravery. It can be implied that he believes both sides showed equal courage. In the first sentence of the first paragraph, Chamberlain states, "The attack was impetuous..." meaning that it was not planned. Therefore, the only answer left is the correct one: "A fierce battle between Union and Confederate troops raged back and forth, eventually leaving Union troops in command of the field."

Example Question #2 : Analyzing Comparative Reading Passages

"Europe and the Black Death"

In a series of lectures published after his death, historian David Herlihy theorizes that the Black Death led to the transformation of Western Europe and shaped crucial aspects of modern thinking and behavior. Herlihy’s lectures, written in 1985, draw comparisons to social phenomena associated with more recent epidemics, such as the influenza outbreak of 1919 and the mysterious arrival of AIDS in his own time. However, Herlihy writes that what made the Black Death so historically significant, other than the shocking death toll it levied, was the transformative impact that the plague had on labor markets, agrarian practices, economic innovation, and medical theory.

Herlihy’s lectures take aim at Thomas Malthus’s Iron Law of Population as laid out in his 1798 book titled An Essay on the Principle of Population. The Iron Law states that that population growth is necessarily limited by the available means of subsistence and actual population will be ultimately kept equal to the means of subsistence through catastrophic events. The Black Death, which deprived erstwhile-overpopulated 14th Century Europe of more than 25 million of its residents, became a seminal historical example of a Malthusian population check.

However, Herlihy cautions against characterizing the Black Death as a response to overpopulation in medieval Europe. If that were the case, he asserts, the epidemic would have arrived at the beginning of the century when population growth slowed amidst escalating food prices. Herlihy writes, "The medieval experience shows us not a Malthusian crisis but a stalemate, in the sense that the community was maintaining at stable levels very large numbers over a lengthy period." He posits that the term population deadlock, rather than population crisis, should be used to describe Europe before the epidemics.

According to Herlihy, the arrival of the Black Death to Europe in 1347 broke this deadlock. As a result of crashing populations, trade guilds and landowners went from a labor glut to a labor shortage virtually overnight. The shortage led to innovations in both agriculture and the production of goods. For example, Herlihy theorizes that the invention of the printing press in 1440 occurred in part because the Black Death and successive plagues culled the ranks of scribes needed to transcribe manuscripts by hand. He also argues that the sudden public health crisis bridged the divide between medical theorists and those actually treating patients, resulting in more anatomical research and medical innovation.

Still more profound, Herlihy writes, was the effect the population crash had on longstanding medieval social structures. In addition to forcing agricultural innovation, the plague’s strengthening of the labor market reduced the peasant’s dependence on wealthy landowners. In fact, evidence shows that the labor ranks thinned even more during the outbreak from pessimistic workers who opted to spend their precious remaining time on earth in leisure. Those who continued to work enjoyed greater social mobility, which led to the passage of sumptuary laws by members of the elite desperate to maintain their caste superiority in a waning feudal economic system.

The primary purpose of the passage is to ______________.

Possible Answers:

summarize one historian’s theories about how the Black Death broke the population deadlock of the 14th Century and spurred social and economic transformation

criticize the hypothesis of Thomas Malthus that a population check invariably follows overpopulation

analyze the social and economic impact of epidemics during the medieval period

present evidence that the disease that fueled the Black Death crisis was not the Bubonic Plague, as previously believed

discuss the factors that contributed to catastrophic population losses in Western Europe with the arrival of the Black Death

Correct answer:

summarize one historian’s theories about how the Black Death broke the population deadlock of the 14th Century and spurred social and economic transformation

Explanation:

Correct Answer: The main point of the passage is to summarize the hypothesis of historian David Herlihy regarding the transformative effects of the Black Death.

Wrong answers: The passage does not discuss the environmental causes of the Black Death, but rather its impact on society; The passage only addresses the Black Death and not all epidemics of the medieval period; The identity of the underlying disease is not discussed in the passage; Herlihy refused to apply the Malthusian Iron Law of Population to the events of the Black Death, but did not criticize the theory.

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