PSAT Critical Reading : Summarizing and Describing Humanities Passage Content

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for PSAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Summarizing And Describing Humanities Passage Content

Adapted from James Fennimore Cooper’s novel, The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Read the passage and then answer the questions that follow.

 

1          His eyes fell on the still, upright, and rigid form of the “Indian runner,” who

2 had borne to the camp the unwelcome tidings of the preceding evening. Although

3 in a state of perfect repose, and apparently disregarding, with characteristic

4 stoicism, the excitement and bustle around him, there was a sullen fierceness

5 mingled with the quiet of the savage that was likely to arrest the attention of

6 much more experienced eyes than those which now scanned him in unconcealed

7 amazement. The native bore both the tomahawk and knife of his tribe; and yet,

8 his appearance was not altogether that of a warrior. On the contrary, there was

9 an air of neglect about his person, like that which might have proceeded from

10 great and recent exertion, which he had not yet found leisure to repair. The

11 colors of the war paint had blended in dark confusion about his fierce

12 countenance, and rendered his swarthy lineaments still more savage and

13 repulsive than if art had attempted an effect which had been thus produced

14 by chance. His eye, alone, which glistened like a fiery star amid lowering clouds,

15 was to be seen in its state of native wildness. For a single instant, his searching

16 and yet wary glance met the wondering look of the other, and then changing its

17 direction, partly in cunning and partly in disdain, it remain fixed, as if

18 penetrating the air.

Which of the following accurately summarizes the author’s opinion of the Indian runner?  

Possible Answers:

He esteems the lifestyle and nature of the native.

He vilifies the native but speaks with a subtle tone of curiosity.

He disparages both the appearance and nature of the native.

He detests the native in every way. 

Correct answer:

He vilifies the native but speaks with a subtle tone of curiosity.

Explanation:

Cooper critiques the physiognomy and wildness of the native, but the language reveals that he is in a state of wonder and deep analysis. For example, he says, “his eye, alone, which glistened like a fiery star” and “yet, his appearance was not altogether that of a warrior.”

Example Question #4 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Argumentative Humanities Passages

Adapted from the Advertisement to Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth (1798)

It is the honorable characteristic of Poetry that its materials are to be found in every subject which can interest the human mind. The evidence of this fact is to be sought, not in the writings of Critics, but in those of Poets themselves.

The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure. Readers accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will perhaps frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness: they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to enquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title. It is desirable that such readers, for their own sakes, should not suffer the solitary word Poetry, a word of very disputed meaning, to stand in the way of their gratification; but that, while they are perusing this book, they should ask themselves if it contains a natural delineation of human passions, human characters, and human incidents; and if the answer be favorable to the author's wishes, that they should consent to be pleased in spite of that most dreadful enemy to our pleasures, our own pre-established codes of decision.

Readers of superior judgement may disapprove of the style in which many of these pieces are executed it must be expected that many lines and phrases will not exactly suit their taste. It will perhaps appear to them, that wishing to avoid the prevalent fault of the day, the author has sometimes descended too low, and that many of his expressions are too familiar, and not of sufficient dignity. It is apprehended, that the more conversant the reader is with our elder writers, and with those in modern times who have been the most successful in painting manners and passions, the fewer complaints of this kind will he have to make.

An accurate taste in poetry, and in all the other arts, Sir Joshua Reynolds has observed, is an acquired talent, which can only be produced by severe thought, and a long continued intercourse with the best models of composition. This is mentioned not with so ridiculous a purpose as to prevent the most inexperienced reader from judging for himself; but merely to temper the rashness of decision, and to suggest that if poetry be a subject on which much time has not been bestowed, the judgement may be erroneous, and that in many cases it necessarily will be so.

Which of the following best describes the passage as a whole?

Possible Answers:

A list of the honorable features of poetry and the poems in which these features appear

A vindication of modern poetry and a statement of literary modernization

A criticism of the literary world and a manifesto for change in poetry

An advertisement for a collection of poetry written for a bookshop sales magazine

A discussion of the author's work and a justification of it in a contemporary context

Correct answer:

A discussion of the author's work and a justification of it in a contemporary context

Explanation:

It is obvious from the passage that the author is justifying the “following poems” and that they are trying to justify them in a "modern," or contemporary, context. The author goes to some length to discuss the work and how readers might react to it.

Example Question #1 : Main Idea, Details, Opinions, And Arguments In Argumentative Humanities Passages

Adapted from the Advertisement to Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth (1798)

It is the honorable characteristic of Poetry that its materials are to be found in every subject which can interest the human mind. The evidence of this fact is to be sought, not in the writings of Critics, but in those of Poets themselves.

The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure. Readers accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will perhaps frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness: they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to enquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title. It is desirable that such readers, for their own sakes, should not suffer the solitary word Poetry, a word of very disputed meaning, to stand in the way of their gratification; but that, while they are perusing this book, they should ask themselves if it contains a natural delineation of human passions, human characters, and human incidents; and if the answer be favorable to the author's wishes, that they should consent to be pleased in spite of that most dreadful enemy to our pleasures, our own pre-established codes of decision.

Readers of superior judgement may disapprove of the style in which many of these pieces are executed it must be expected that many lines and phrases will not exactly suit their taste. It will perhaps appear to them, that wishing to avoid the prevalent fault of the day, the author has sometimes descended too low, and that many of his expressions are too familiar, and not of sufficient dignity. It is apprehended, that the more conversant the reader is with our elder writers, and with those in modern times who have been the most successful in painting manners and passions, the fewer complaints of this kind will he have to make.

An accurate taste in poetry, and in all the other arts, Sir Joshua Reynolds has observed, is an acquired talent, which can only be produced by severe thought, and a long continued intercourse with the best models of composition. This is mentioned not with so ridiculous a purpose as to prevent the most inexperienced reader from judging for himself; but merely to temper the rashness of decision, and to suggest that if poetry be a subject on which much time has not been bestowed, the judgement may be erroneous, and that in many cases it necessarily will be so.

Which of the following sentences best summarizes the first paragraph?

Possible Answers:

Inspiration for poetry is found in anything the poet cares to think about and their poetry attests to this being a fact. 

Poetry is derived from all things and the work of critics proves this.

Those who criticize do not understand the nature of poetry or the specificity with which inspiration is chosen.

The longer the poem, the more materials a poet can use, although only critics can certify this.

The essence of poetry is a secret only poets know, and to ask a critic where the inspiration for a poem comes from is a foolish thing to do.

Correct answer:

Inspiration for poetry is found in anything the poet cares to think about and their poetry attests to this being a fact. 

Explanation:

The author is suggesting in the first paragraph that inspiration or “the materials” with which poetry is made are found in everything and that it is better to seek validation of this as a fact within the work of poets instead of in the work of critics. Therefore, only poetry can attest that it can be inspired by anything. The work of critics is misleading, as it could suggest that poetry should only be about certain subjects.

Example Question #42 : Humanities

Adapted from Walden by Henry Thoreau (1854)

Still we live meanly, like ants; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.

Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment. The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not, but whether we should live like baboons or like men is a little uncertain. If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you.

In this passage, the author is most concerned with which theme?

Possible Answers:

Communication

Boundary disputes

Excess

The development of infrastructure

Immorality

Correct answer:

Excess

Explanation:

Thoreau makes no mention of boundary disputes within the nation, and while he calls the economy “rigid,” it is not his primary worry, but instead a recommendation for people to take stock of their households and pursuits more carefully. Likewise, he discusses the development of infrastructure when he discusses railroads at the end of the second paragraph, but this is not his primary focus. Instead, Thoreau is concerned with all the aspects of contemporary American culture that are opposed to a “Spartan simplicity of life,” which can be considered together as “excess.”

Example Question #3 : Drawing Generalizations About Humanities Passages

Adapted from “Genius and Individuality” by John Stuart Mill (1859)

It will not be denied by anybody that originality is a valuable element in human affairs. There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life. This cannot well be said by anybody who does not believe that the world has already attained perfection in all its ways and practices. It is true that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by everybody alike; there are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist, it is they who keep the life in those which already existed. If there were nothing new to be done, would human intellect cease to be necessary? Would it cause people to forget how best to go about their business, and instead to do things like cattle, not like human beings? There is a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical. Persons of genius are a small minority, but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.

I insist thus emphatically on the importance of genius, and the necessity of allowing it to unfold itself freely both in thought and in practice, being well aware that no one will deny the position in theory, but knowing also that almost everyone, in reality, is totally indifferent to it. People think genius a fine thing if it enables a man to write an exciting poem, or paint a picture. But in its true sense, that of originality in thought and action, though no one says that it is not a thing to be admired, nearly all, at heart, think they can do very well without it. Unhappily this is too natural to be wondered at. Originality is the one thing which unoriginal minds cannot feel the use of. They cannot see what it is to do for them: how should they? If they could see what it would do for them, it would not be originality. The first service which originality has to render them is the opening of their eyes; once this is done, they would have a chance of being themselves original.

In this passage, the author emphasizes which aspect of genius?

Possible Answers:

Its divisiveness

Its rarity 

Its infallibility

Its weakness

Its tolerance 

Correct answer:

Its rarity 

Explanation:

Throughout this passage, the author makes numerous references to the rarity of genius and the importance of protecting it. For example, the author says that “persons of genius are a small minority.” The infallibility, divisiveness, weakness or tolerant capabilities of genius are never explicitly stated.

Example Question #2 : Summarizing And Describing Humanities Passage Content

Adapted from "The Philosophy of Composition" by Edgar Allan Poe (1846)

Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative—designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view—for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest—I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.

In the first line, Poe is basically saying __________.

Possible Answers:

the plot of a book should be planned out to the end before the writer begins writing it

a book's ending must be figured out before the book's beginning

attempting to write anything leads a writer to completely plan out a story before beginning it in earnest

no plot worth the name is planned out by the writer

Correct answer:

the plot of a book should be planned out to the end before the writer begins writing it

Explanation:

In the passage's first line, Poe states that a plot must be completely laid out until the very end of a story before the writer begins writing that story.

Example Question #3 : Summarizing And Describing Humanities Passage Content

Passage adapted from J.R Hamilton's "When You Know What is Best, Ask For It By Name" San Francisco Call, April 16, 1912.

If a man has anything he is proud of, he gives it a name whether it be a baby or a pair of boots. And the more he is proud of it, the more he talks about it.

Nameless things are seldom good and never reliable. If you want to cut down your cost of living the very best way to do it is to learn to ask only for standard articles.

When you know the name of a good maker of shirts or shoes, of furniture or pianos, of hardware or underwear, fix that name definitely in your mind and remember it when you come to buy.

Do not allow strange things to come into your home any more than you would allow strange people.

The brand and the trademark and the copyright are the letters of introduction from the maker to you. In this way he vouches for their respectability and guarantees their good behavior in your home.

There is a name for every good product that is made. And most of these names are known by every man and woman in America. Manufacturers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to standardize these names in your mind. From the lining of a dress to laundry soap; from a cleanser to a baking powder; from a suit of clothes to a kit of tools; you could call every standard article on the market by name if you would only remember to do so when you come to buy.

It is through your carelessness that lies and adulterations creep in. The standard is set by good men, but the standard is only maintained by you.

It is time for you to forget the generic name of every article, and remember only the standard name of its quality.

In the advertising news of this paper today you will find many of these standard names and brands of quality. This article is written for the sole purpose of reminding you to use those names. It is only fair that you should do as much for these good manufacturers as they are doing for you. It is only right that you should help in this great standardization of good products that is going on throughout America.

Begin now to ask by name for everything you buy. And you will find your satisfaction growing greater day by day and your optimism extending even down to your pocket book.

Which of the following best describes the passage as a whole?

Possible Answers:

A discussion supporting the purchase of only name brand consumer items.

A list of arguments in favor of high tariffs.

A description of the difficulties involved in receiving a trademark or copyright.

A discussion of the importance of names.

Correct answer:

A discussion supporting the purchase of only name brand consumer items.

Explanation:

The author believes that items carrying brand names are far superior to generic items. In the second paragraph he states, "Nameless things are seldom good and never reliable." In the fourth paragraph, he also claims that allowing a "strange" item into your home is the same as allowing a stranger into your home. He believes that items carrying name brands are being guaranteed by the good name of the company that produced it (see Paragraph 5).

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