SSAT Middle Level Reading : Recognizing the Main Idea in Narrative Social Science Passages

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

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Narrative Social Science 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.

Who does Napoleon believe “robbed him of his destiny”?

Possible Answers:

Wellington

The weather

Sir Sidney Smith

The French Government

God

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 #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 "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

violated the laws made in Gaul to protect the Empire

got back in time to defend the capital from barbarians 

threatened the Roman capital with his army 

accommodated the wishes of the Roman Senate 

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 #1 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Narrative Social Science Passages

Adapted from Young People’s History of the War with Spain by Prescott Holmes (1900)

On April 21st, 1898, a war began between the United States and Spain. All the other countries of the world felt an interest in it but did not take any part in it. They were what we call "neutral" and did not help either side. As soon as the war was declared, a great wave of excitement swept through the United States from shore to shore. Flags were hung out in every city and town; thousands of men offered to serve in the army—volunteers, they were called—and many persons offered to help in other ways. The people were dispirited that war had begun, but they soon felt that their country was doing right and that they ought to support the war effort.

And what was the cause of the war? Spain, a large country across the Atlantic Ocean in the southwestern part of Europe, owned some of the islands called "West Indies" near the United States. Spain had been unjust and cruel to the people living in one of these islands for many years. Several times, the unhappy islanders tried to drive the Spanish from the island and set up a government of their own, but Spain sent so many soldiers there that they could not get their freedom. They fought bravely, however, but matters kept getting worse and worse. Spain sent a very cruel general to take charge of affairs on the island. His name was Weyler and he was determined to conquer the islanders. After a while, he found he could not do it by fighting them, so he sent his soldiers to drive those who were not fighting away from their homes and farms and make them live in or near the large cities. After he did this, the people had no way to earn money for food and soon began to get sick and die of starvation. The cruel Weyler would not give them anything to eat and so they died by the thousands. Americans were faced with the choice of standing idly by whilst thousands perished or risking American lives in a difficult war.

According to the author, what was the cause of this war?

Possible Answers:

Spanish mistreatment of the natives of the West Indies

Spanish threats to American interests

Spanish opposition to America’s trading relationship with Britain

America’s militaristic discourse in the media

None of the other answers

Correct answer:

Spanish mistreatment of the natives of the West Indies

Explanation:

At the beginning of the second paragraph, the author states, “And what was the cause of the war? Spain, a large country across the Atlantic Ocean, in the southwestern part of Europe, owned some of the islands called 'West Indies,' near the United States. Spain had been unjust and cruel to the people living in one of these islands, for many years.” This reveals that the author believes that war broke out because the Spanish mistreated the natives of the West Indies.

Example Question #2 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Narrative Social Science Passages

Adapted from A Man Who Coveted Washington’s Shoes by Frank E. Stockton (1896)

The person whose story we are now about to tell was not a Jerseyman, but, as most of the incidents which make him interesting to us occurred in this state, we will give him the benefit of a few years' residence here.

This was General Charles Lee, who might well have been called a soldier of fortune. He was born in England, but the British Isles were entirely too small to satisfy his wild ambitions and his bold spirit. There are few heroes of romance who have had such a wide and varied experience, and who have engaged in so many strange enterprises. He was a brave man and very able, but he had a fault which prevented him from being a high-class soldier: he could not bear authority and was always restive under command of another, and, while always ready to tell other people what they ought to do, was never willing to be told what he ought to do.

He joined the British army when he was a young man, and he first came to this country in 1757, when General Abercrombie brought over an army to fight the French. For three years, Lee was engaged in the wilds and forests, doing battle with the Native Americans and French, and no doubt he had all the adventures an ordinary person would desire, but this experience was far from satisfactory.

What is General Charles Lee’s primary fault, according to the author?

Possible Answers:

He abandoned his family in the British Isles. 

He refuses to fight when the battle gets too intense.

He is not a hard worker. 

He is always showing up to things late.

He does not respect authority.

Correct answer:

He does not respect authority.

Explanation:

The author states that Lee had many positive traits, but one serious negative one: “He was a brave man and very able, but he had a fault which prevented him from being a high-class soldier: he could not bear authority and was always restive under command of another, and, while always ready to tell other people what they ought to do, was never willing to be told what he ought to do.”  The author faults Lee for being disobedient and disrespectful towards authority.

Example Question #4 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Narrative Social Science 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 Holy Roman Empire was neither, strictly speaking, Holy, Roman, nor an Empire.

That the Holy Roman Empire was unusual in European history because it was not based on inheritance.

That the Luxembourg family is lucky to still have a country named after it.

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

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.

Example Question #2 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Narrative Social Science Passages

Adapted from A Child’s History of England by Charles Darwin (1905)

Henry Plantagenet, when he was but twenty-one years old, quietly succeeded to the throne of England, according to his agreement made with the late king at Winchester. Six weeks after Stephen’s death, he and his queen, Eleanor, were crowned in that city, into which they rode on horseback in great state, side by side, amidst much shouting and rejoicing, and clashing of music, and strewing of flowers.

The reign of King Henry the Second began well. The king had great possessions, and (with his own property, and with that of his wife) was lord of one-third part of France. He was a young man of strength, ability, and determination, and immediately applied himself to remove some of the evils which had arisen in the last unhappy reign. He took away all the grants of land that had been hastily made, on either side, during the recent struggles; he forced numbers of disorderly soldiers to depart from England; he reclaimed all the castles belonging to the crown; and he forced the wicked nobles to pull down their own castles, to the number of eleven hundred, in which such dismal cruelties had been inflicted on the people.  

The king’s brother, Geoffrey, rose against him in France and forced Henry to wage a war in France. After he had subdued and made a friendly arrangement with his brother (who did not live long), his ambition to increase his possessions involved him in a war with the French king, Louis. He had been on such friendly terms with the French king just before, that to his infant daughter, then a baby in the cradle, he had promised one of his little sons in marriage, who was a child of five years old. However, the war came to nothing at last, and the Pope made the two kings friends again.

The theme of the second paragraph is that __________.

Possible Answers:

Stephen had left Henry a great deal of wealth to spend.

Henry had many difficulties to confront upon becoming king and was able to meet them due to his strong and talented nature.

War with France was inevitable once Henry became King.

The reign of the previous king had been much more successful than Henry’s was.

Henry was facing an impossible task in trying to keep England under control.

Correct answer:

Henry had many difficulties to confront upon becoming king and was able to meet them due to his strong and talented nature.

Explanation:

In the second paragraph, the author says, “[King Henry] was a young man of strength, ability, and determination, and immediately applied himself to remove some of the evils which had arisen in the last unhappy reign.” The author then goes on to list the many difficult tasks that Henry had to accomplish once he became king and suggests that he was able to do so because of his “strength, ability, and determination.” This tells you that theme of the second paragraph is that “Henry had many difficulties to confront upon becoming king and was able to meet them due to his strong and talented nature.”

Example Question #3 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Narrative Social Science Passages

Adapted from A Modern History from the Time of Luther to the Fall of Napoleon by John Lord (1874)

The period at which this history commences—the beginning of the sixteenth century—when compared with the ages which had preceded it, since the fall of the Roman empire, was one of unprecedented brilliancy and activity. It was a period very fruitful in great people and great events, and, though stormy and turbulent, was favorable to experiments and reforms. The nations of Europe seem to have been suddenly aroused from a state of torpor and rest, and to have put forth new energies in every department of life. The material and the political, the moral and the social condition of society was subject to powerful agitations, and passed through important changes.

Great discoveries and inventions had been made. The use of movable types, first ascribed to Gutenberg in 1441 and to Peter Schœffer in 1444, changed the whole system of book-making, and vastly increased the circulation of the scriptures, the Greek and Latin classics, and all other valuable works, which, by the industry of the monkish copyist, had been preserved from the ravages of time and barbarism. Gunpowder, whose explosive power had been perceived by Roger Bacon as early as 1280, though it was not used on the field of battle until 1346, had changed the art of war, which had greatly contributed to undermining the feudal system. The polarity of the magnet, also discovered in the middle ages, and not practically applied to the mariner's compass until 1403, had led to the greatest event of the fifteenth century—the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, in 1492. The impulse given to commerce by this and other discoveries of unknown continents and oceans, by the Portuguese, the Spaniards, the Dutch, the English, and the French, cannot be here enlarged on. America revealed to the astonished European its riches in gold and silver; and Indian spices, and silks, and drugs, were imported through new channels. Mercantile wealth, with all its refinements, acquired new importance in the eyes of the nations. The world opened towards the east and the west. The horizon of knowledge extended. Popular delusions were dispelled. Liberality of mind was acquired. The material prosperity of the western nations was increased. Tastes became more refined, and social intercourse more cheerful.

The main theme of this passage is that __________.

Possible Answers:

the nations of Europe were inspired to conquer the Americas based on the promise of riches

before the sixteenth century, man lived in scientific and moral darkness

the sixteenth century was a time of great advancement in the world

without the invention of gunpowder, Europe would never have left the Dark Ages

the sixteenth century was a time of great change in the world

Correct answer:

the sixteenth century was a time of great advancement in the world

Explanation:

Almost all of these answers have at least an element of truth in them, but only one properly captures the main theme of this passage. You might have been tempted to answer that the sixteenth century was a time of great change, since after all, this is supported by the whole of the passage; however, this answer does not really capture the author’s main idea and intention—he clearly believes that the sixteenth century was not just a time of great change, but was a time of great advancement. He notes many things which improved or advanced in this time period from weaponry and economic concerns to tastes and social interaction.

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