SSAT Middle Level Reading : Recognizing the Main Idea in Argumentative Humanities Passages

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

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Example Questions

Example Question #12 : Isee Middle Level (Grades 7 8) Reading Comprehension

"Newton's Mistakes" by Daniel Morrison (2014)

Isaac Newton has often been thought of as the greatest thinker in human history. His insight into the role that gravity plays in existence and physics completely changed our collective understanding of the universe and our place in it. He was understood in his own time as a genius. One famous quote by Alexander Pope (himself quite an intelligent man) demonstrates the deep affection felt for Newton: “Nature, and nature’s mysteries, lay bathed in night, God said 'Let there be Newton,’ and all was light.”

Yet, when the famous economist John Kenneth Galbraith purchased Newton’s journals and diaries at auction, he found to his astonishment, and partial dismay, that more than half of Newton’s work was dedicated to the practice of alchemy—the pursuit of turning ordinary materials into precious metals. Our current understanding of science tells us that this is impossible and that Newton was wasting a significant proportion of his time.

Another famous story about Newton tells of his attempts to figure out the effect of direct exposure to sunlight on the human eye. To carry out this experiment he decided to stare at the sun for as long as humanly possible to see what would happen. The effect, as you might have guessed, was that he very nearly went permanently blind and was indeed completely unable to see for two days.

One might determine from these stories that Newton was not the genius we consider him to be—that he was, in fact, a fool; however, it should tell us something about the nature of genius. It is not merely deep intelligence, but the willingness to try new things and the rejection of the fear of failure. Newton was not a genius in spite of his mistakes, but because of them.

The main argument of this essay is __________.

Possible Answers:

That in spite of his many breathtaking achievements, Newton should be best remembered for his foolishness

That genius is born, not made

That the pursuit of alchemy ultimately led to the intellectual ruin of Isaac Newton

That Newton was a genius because of his willingness to make mistakes, not in spite of this

That Newton’s contributions to science make him the greatest mind in human history

Correct answer:

That Newton was a genius because of his willingness to make mistakes, not in spite of this

Explanation:

Throughout this essay, the author is primarily contrasting Newton’s scientific contributions and esteemed reputation with examples of his whimsy and foolishness in order to lead the reader to his main argument and conclusion. This is, “But, really it should tell us something about the nature of genius. It is not merely deep intelligence, but the willingness to try new things and the rejection of the fear of failure. Newton was not a genius in spite of his mistakes, but because of them.” So, the correct answer is “That Newton was a genius because of his willingness to make mistakes, not in spite of this.”

Example Question #1 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Argumentative Humanities Passages

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

Early humans did not know what time meant, but in a general way they kept track of the seasons. They had noticed that the cold winter was invariably followed by the mild spring—that spring grew into the hot summer when fruits ripened and the wild ears of corn were ready to be eaten and that summer ended when sudden gusts of wind swept the leaves from the trees and a number of animals were getting ready for the long hibernal sleep.

But now, something was the matter with the weather. The warm days of summer had come very late. All the time the days grew shorter and the nights grew colder than they ought to have been.

It began to snow. It snowed for months and months. All the plants died and the animals fled in search of the southern sun. The early humans hoisted their young upon their backs and followed them. But they could not travel as fast as the wilder creatures and he were forced to choose between quick thinking or quick dying. They seem to have preferred the former, for they have managed to survive the terrible glacial periods which threatened to kill every human being on the face of the earth.

First, it was necessary that early humans clothe themselves lest they freeze to death. They learned how to dig holes and cover them with branches and leaves, and in these traps they caught animals, which they then killed with heavy stones and whose skins they used as coats for himself and their families.

Next came the housing problem. This was simple. Many animals were in the habit of sleeping in dark caves. The early humans now followed their example, drove the animals out of their warm homes and claimed them for their own.

In this way thousands of years passed. Only the people with the cleverest brains survived. They had to struggle day and night against cold and hunger. They discovered fire. They were forced to invent tools. They learned how to sharpen stones into axes and how to make hammers. They were obliged to put up large stores of food for the endless days of the winter and they found that clay could be made into bowls and jars and hardened in the rays of the sun. And so the glacial period, which had threatened to destroy humanity, became its greatest teacher because it forced humans to use their brains.

The main argument of this passage is that __________.

Possible Answers:

Mankind almost perished during the glacial periods of Earth’s history.

The ice age had a negative impact on the evolution of mankind.

Mankind was forced into great mental development by the ice age.

Human history is a long struggle against the elemental forces of nature.

The forces of nature represent the greatest threats to human existence.

Correct answer:

Mankind was forced into great mental development by the ice age.

Explanation:

In this passage, the author is primarily arguing that mankind was forced into rapid mental adaptation due to the threat brought about by an ice age. This is most clearly shown in the concluding paragraph when the author says, “In this way thousands of years passed. Only the people with the cleverest brains survived. They had to struggle day and night against cold and hunger” and “And so the glacial period, which had threatened to destroy humanity, became its greatest teacher because it forced humans to use their brains.” Almost all of these answer choices are part of the author’s arguments in this passage, but only one accurately captures the author’s emphasis on the ice age as means of teaching humanity and aiding its development.

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