PSAT Critical Reading : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, and Purpose in Social Science / History Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for PSAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

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Example Question #91 : Identifying And Analyzing Important Details In Social Science Or History Passages

"Goffman's Theory of Institutions" by Joseph Ritchie (2014)

Sociological inquiry often investigates members of society considered to be on its outer edges. These individuals often live in precarious and vulnerable situations. Traditionally, sociologists have studied these groups to gain insight into the lives of people who are forgotten victims of the blind eye of society. In 1961, Erving Goffman published the book Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. This book outlined the theory of a total institution as seen in prisons and asylums. Goffman’s interests and theory helped to reveal the inner mechanics of asylums and the process of institutionalization that takes place within a total institution.

According to Goffman’s observations and subsequent theories, a total institution seeks to erode the relationships of an individual with the outside world and consume their personal identities and daily activities. The end goal of a total institution is to break down and deconstruct the barriers that separate the spheres of sleep, play, and work in an individual’s life by conducting all of these aspects of life in the same location under the same authority. In these institutions, Goffman stated that there is an intentional divide between a large, managed group and a supervisor, which often results in feelings of submissiveness and reluctance to leave the institutionalized setting on the part of the “inmates.” This suggests that these restrictive environments lead to the institutionalization of an individual into the group and away from his or her previous, independent life. In these structures, an individual’s admission procedures shape and engineer the new member in what may be described as a process of programming. This programming of an individual is characterized by a “leaving off” of one’s identity and a “taking on” of one supplied by the establishment. Members of these establishments are alienated from their previous lives and encircled by the ideals and principals of the new institution. A prolonged exposure to similar institutions results in a phenomenon known as "disculturation," which is an un-training that renders an individual temporarily incapable of managing certain features of daily life outside the structures of the institutions.

Sociologists often study groups forgotten or ignored by society. Goffman’s work illuminated issues with vulnerable populations at asylums and other institutions. Ethnographic field studies have continued this tradition and in doing so have theorized the causes of many of society’s ills. Goffman’s work is just one example of sociology’s ability to delve into an understudied region of society, propose explanations of issues, and theorize possible avenues of reform.

The "supervisor" of an institution often produces which of the following feelings in the "inmates"?

Possible Answers:

Anger and frustration

Confusion and lack of confidence

Self-contemplation and confusion about one's identity

Submissiveness and reluctance to leave

Adoration and respect

Correct answer:

Submissiveness and reluctance to leave

Explanation:

The passage states in its second paragraph, "there is an intentional divide between a large managed group and a supervisor, which often results in feelings of submissiveness and reluctance to leave the institutionalized setting on the part of the 'inmates.'" A supervisor produces feelings of submissiveness and reluctance, which results in the inmate feeling dependent upon the institution for his or her needs and existence.

Example Question #1 : Social Science Passages

Adapted from “Introductory Remarks” in The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud (trans. 1913)

In attempting to discuss the interpretation of dreams, I do not believe that I have overstepped the bounds of neuropathological interest. For, when investigated psychologically, the dream proves to be the first link in a chain of abnormal psychic structures whose other links—the hysterical phobia, the obsession, and the delusion—must interest the physician for practical reasons. The dream can lay no claim to a corresponding practical significance; however, its theoretical value is very great, and one who cannot explain the origin of the content of dreams will strive in vain to understand phobias, obsessive and delusional ideas, and likewise their therapeutic importance.

While this relationship makes our subject important, it is responsible also for the deficiencies in this work. The surfaces of fracture, which will be frequently discussed, correspond to many points of contact where the problem of dream formation informs more comprehensive problems of psychopathology which cannot be discussed here. These larger issues will be elaborated upon in the future.

Peculiarities in the material I have used to elucidate the interpretation of dreams have rendered this publication difficult. The work itself will demonstrate why all dreams related in scientific literature or collected by others had to remain useless for my purpose. In choosing my examples, I had to limit myself to considering my own dreams and those of my patients who were under psychoanalytic treatment. I was restrained from utilizing material derived from my patients' dreams by the fact that during their treatment, the dream processes were subjected to an undesirable complication—the intermixture of neurotic characters. On the other hand, in discussing my own dreams, I was obliged to expose more of the intimacies of my psychic life than I should like, more so than generally falls to the task of an author who is not a poet but an investigator of nature. This was painful, but unavoidable; I had to put up with the inevitable in order to demonstrate the truth of my psychological results at all. To be sure, I disguised some of my indiscretions through omissions and substitutions, though I feel that these detract from the value of the examples in which they appear. I can only express the hope that the reader of this work, putting himself in my difficult position, will show patience, and also that anyone inclined to take offense at any of the reported dreams will concede freedom of thought at least to the dream life.

The author has written this passage in order to __________.

Possible Answers:

justify his work and address some of its limitations

propose a psychological experiment

teach the reader how to interpret his or her own dreams

respond to a specific critic who has cast doubt on his work’s reliability

discuss common causes of nightmares

Correct answer:

justify his work and address some of its limitations

Explanation:

The author begins his work from a defensive standpoint, arguing in the first sentence that he has not “overstepped the bounds of neuropathological interest” in investigating and writing about the interpretation of dreams. He then goes on to addresses some of his study’s limitations in the second and third paragraphs. Thus, we can say that the author’s purpose in writing this passage is to “justify his work and address some of its limitations.” None of the other answer choices are supported by the passage.

Example Question #1 : Understanding The Content Of Social Science / History Passages

Adapted from "Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft" by George Eliot (1855)

There is a notion commonly entertained among men that an instructed woman, capable of having opinions, is likely to prove an unpractical yoke-fellow, always pulling one way when her husband wants to go the other, oracular in tone, and prone to give lectures. But surely, so far as obstinacy is concerned, your unreasoning animal is the most difficult of your creatures. For our own parts, we see no reason why women should be better kept under control rather than educated to be mans rational equal.  

If you ask me what offices women may fill, I reply—any. I do not care what case you put; let them be sea-captains, if you will. I do not doubt there are women well fitted for such an office, and, if so, I should be glad to welcome the Maid of Saragossa. I think women need, especially at this juncture, a much greater range of occupation than they have, to rouse their latent powers. In families that I know, some little girls like to saw wood, and others to use carpenters' tools. Where these tastes are indulged, cheerfulness and good-humor are promoted. Where they are forbidden, because "such things are not proper for girls," they grow sullen and mischievous.

Men pay a heavy price for their reluctance to encourage self-help and independent resources in women. The precious meridian years of many a man of genius have to be spent in the toil of routine, that an "establishment" may be kept up for a woman who can understand none of his secret yearnings, who is fit for nothing but to sit in her drawing-room like a doll-Madonna in her shrine. No matter. Anything is more endurable than to change our established formulae about women, or to run the risk of looking up to our wives instead of looking down on them. So men say of women, let them be idols, useless absorbents of previous things, provided we are not obliged to admit them to be strictly fellow-beings, to be treated, one and all, with justice and sober reverence.

This passage is primarily concerned with __________.

Possible Answers:

the effect of the changing economic situation on female independence

the changing relationship between men and women

the historical root of contemporary gendered attitudes

the effects of patriarchal society on young children

the advancement of women’s rights

Correct answer:

the advancement of women’s rights

Explanation:

When you are asked what a passage is primarily concerned with it is necessary to consider what you have just read as a whole. There is no evidence in the passage to suggest that the author is concerned with the effects of patriarchal society on young children. Likewise the changing economic situation and historical roots of contemporary attitudes are never discussed. There is a discussion of the relationship between men and women, but little evidence provided to suggest it is changing. The primary concern of the passage is the advancement of women’s rights as evidenced, for example, “If you ask me what offices they [women] may fill, I reply—any."

Example Question #1 : Making Inferences And Predictions In History Passages

Adapted from Women’s Political Future by Frances E. W. Harper (1893)

The world has need of all the spiritual aid that woman can give for the social advancement and moral development of the human race. The tendency of the present age, with its restlessness, religious upheavals, failures, blunders, and crimes, is toward broader freedom, an increase of knowledge, the emancipation of thought, and recognition of the brotherhood of man; in this movement woman, as the companion of man, must be an equal. So close is the bond between man and woman that you cannot raise one without lifting the other. The world cannot move without woman's sharing in the movement, and to help give a right impetus to that movement is woman's highest privilege.

If the fifteenth century discovered America to the Old World, the nineteenth is discovering woman to herself. Not the opportunity of discovering new worlds, but that of filling this old world with fairer and higher aims than the greed of gold and the lust of power, is hers. Through weary, wasting years men have destroyed, dashed in pieces, and overthrown, but today we stand on the threshold of woman's era, and woman's work is grandly constructive. In her hand are possibilities whose use or abuse must tell upon the political life of the nation, and send their influence for good or evil across the track of unborn ages.

From the whole of this passage, what does the author likely believe will be the product of women’s increased political participation?

Possible Answers:

Moderation of human ambitions

Reassertion of male dominance

Social unrest

Constructive good

Political discord

Correct answer:

Constructive good

Explanation:

The author makes direct reference to her belief in the ability of women to have a positive effect on the growth of human society when she says: “Today we stand on the threshold of woman's era, and woman's work is grandly constructive.” This evidence, combined with the overall tone of the passage, should give enough information to answer that the author believes increased female participation will lead to constructive good.

Example Question #11 : Social Sciences / History

Adapted from The Destructive Male (1868) by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

The male element is a destructive force, stern, selfish, aggrandizing, loving war, violence, conquest, acquisition, breeding in the material and moral world alike discord, disorder, disease, and death. See what a record of blood and cruelty the pages of history reveal! Through what slavery, slaughter, and sacrifice, through what inquisitions and imprisonments, pains and persecutions, black codes and gloomy creeds, the soul of humanity has struggled for the centuries, while mercy has veiled her face and all hearts have been dead alike to love and hope!

The male element has held high carnival thus far; it has fairly run riot from the beginning, overpowering the feminine element everywhere, crushing out all the diviner qualities in human nature, until we know but little of true manhood and womanhood, of the latter comparatively nothing, for it has scarce been recognized as a power until within the last century. Society is but the reflection of man himself, not tempered by woman's thought; the hard iron rule we feel alike in the church, the state, and the home. No one need wonder at the disorganization, at the fragmentary condition of everything, when we remember that man, who represents but half a complete being, with but half an idea on every subject, has undertaken the absolute control of all sublunary matters.

People object to the demands of those whom they choose to call the strong-minded, because they say "the right of suffrage will make the women masculine." That is just the difficulty in which we are involved today. Though disfranchised, we have few women in the best sense; we have simply so many reflections, varieties, and dilutions of the masculine gender. The strong, natural characteristics of womanhood are repressed and ignored in dependence, for so long as man feeds woman she will try to please the giver and adapt herself to his condition.

One of the main points made in the last paragraph is that __________.

Possible Answers:

women are used to being controlled; at church, in the home, in the nation

so long as man is in control woman will be forced to change her nature to accommodate him

the male element is a dangerous and destructive force

female identity is growing stronger and stronger

None of these answers 

Correct answer:

so long as man is in control woman will be forced to change her nature to accommodate him

Explanation:

The author states that “The strong, natural characteristics of womanhood are repressed and ignored in dependence, for so long as man feeds woman she will try to please the giver and adapt herself to his condition.” This quote supports the answer choice that the author argues that so long as man is in control women will change to accommodate and reflect him.

Example Question #1 : Critical Comprehension

While the Gutenberg press was perhaps one of the greatest inventions of all time, we should not let its importance blind us to other very important events in the history of linguistic development. Granted, the efficiency of printing allowed for the dissemination of much learning in Europe. Still, such printing was not unique to Europe, and even in the scope of world history, there are several events that are equally as miraculous regarding the transmission of knowledge.

For instance, most people overlook the amazing nature of the first time that human beings communicated with spoken language. Perhaps there were simple signs by which these early humans could indicate their needs to each other; however, when the first event of person-to-person speech occurred, it was far more marvelous than simple practical communication. Such speech was like a sharing in ideas. When true speech happened, persons were able to communicate knowledge to each other, freeing it from its isolation in one lonely person. By means of such speech, knowledge could be orally transmitted from generation to generation, thus preserving wisdom in a way that is completely impossible without speech.

Of course, such spoken tradition is very fragile, relying on memories and stories that are passed down from generation to generation. For this reason, the invention of writing is extremely important. In contrast to the spoken word, the written word can continue to exist and be useful so long as it can be read intelligently. Likewise, much more can be recorded than ever could be remembered by someone with the best of memories. Indeed, once these records are written, copies can be sent to anyone who is able to read the language in question. Just so, it can be translated into written copies to be read by others. For these (as well as many other reasons) the invention of writing was a very significant event in history, greatly expanding the possibilities for the exchange of knowledge.

Thus, the printing press is quite important, but it is part of a larger story. Like both spoken and written communication, it allows human beings to communicate knowledge not only to each other but also across multiple generations. Often, we think of the press merely in its ability to provide a great number of books in a short period of time; however, when considered as a chapter in this longer tale, it likewise appears as the means by which humanity is able to conquer time by allowing the knowledge of today to live for multiple generations.

What is the main idea of this selection?

Possible Answers:

The Gutenberg press was in fact a rather unimportant invention compared to a number of others.

The Gutenberg press is a fascinating case study but really nothing more.

The Gutenberg press should be ignored by historians after many years of over-emphasis.

The Gutenberg press is the single greatest achievement of human history.

The Gutenberg press should be understood as part of a longer history of the development of human communication.

Correct answer:

The Gutenberg press should be understood as part of a longer history of the development of human communication.

Explanation:

This whole selection aims to show that the significance of the Gutenberg press should be understood in light of the importance of speech and writing. From the beginning, it acknowledges that it was an important invention; however, it follows by providing a short explanation of how speech and writing are likewise very important means of human communication. The closing paragraph repeats the main point, namely that the press was important but is really part of a larger history.

Example Question #1 : Critical Comprehension

While the Gutenberg press was perhaps one of the greatest inventions of all time, we should not let its importance blind us to other very important events in the history of linguistic development. Granted, the efficiency of printing allowed for the dissemination of much learning in Europe. Still, such printing was not unique to Europe, and even in the scope of world history, there are several events that are equally as miraculous regarding the transmission of knowledge.

For instance, most people overlook the amazing nature of the first time that human beings communicated with spoken language. Perhaps there were simple signs by which these early humans could indicate their needs to each other; however, when the first event of person-to-person speech occurred, it was far more marvelous than simple practical communication. Such speech was like a sharing in ideas. When true speech happened, persons were able to communicate knowledge to each other, freeing it from its isolation in one lonely person. By means of such speech, knowledge could be orally transmitted from generation to generation, thus preserving wisdom in a way that is completely impossible without speech.

Of course, such spoken tradition is very fragile, relying on memories and stories that are passed down from generation to generation. For this reason, the invention of writing is extremely important. In contrast to the spoken word, the written word can continue to exist and be useful so long as it can be read intelligently. Likewise, much more can be recorded than ever could be remembered by someone with the best of memories. Indeed, once these records are written, copies can be sent to anyone who is able to read the language in question. Just so, it can be translated into written copies to be read by others. For these (as well as many other reasons) the invention of writing was a very significant event in history, greatly expanding the possibilities for the exchange of knowledge.

Thus, the printing press is quite important, but it is part of a larger story. Like both spoken and written communication, it allows human beings to communicate knowledge not only to each other but also across multiple generations. Often, we think of the press merely in its ability to provide a great number of books in a short period of time; however, when considered as a chapter in this longer tale, it likewise appears as the means by which humanity is able to conquer time by allowing the knowledge of today to live for multiple generations.

What is the main idea of the third paragraph?

Possible Answers:

To give an example of the inventiveness of human authors

To explain the first historical event of writing

To show the worthlessness of speech

To transition back from discussion of speech to discussion of the Gutenberg press

To introduce and explain the benefits of the written word

Correct answer:

To introduce and explain the benefits of the written word

Explanation:

The third paragraph opens with a transition sentence that intends to show that the spoken tradition discussed in the second paragraph is "fragile," that is weak and likely to fail over time. From this transition, it discusses the importance of writing (without judging speech in a completly negative fashion). The remainder of the paragraph explains how writing is able to last for a much longer time than speech. Likewise, it observes how it expands the possibilities for the exchange of knowledge.

Example Question #1 : History Passages

Adapted from Citizenship in a Republic (1910) by Theodore Roosevelt

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Which of the following best captures the attitude of the author towards “critics”?

Possible Answers:

The author feels that all critics are significant measures of social understanding.

The author finds critics to be worthless and immoral.

The author has no strong opinion on critics.

The author lauds critical analysis as the most accurate measure of the greatness of an individual.

The author feels critics should not be praised over those who actually strive to achieve something.

Correct answer:

The author feels critics should not be praised over those who actually strive to achieve something.

Explanation:

The author of this passage describes, in the introduction, how critics should not receive credit for pointing out the flaws in the actions of those who “do” things. To the author the critic is merely a biased observer, intent on pointing out the mistakes of others and little inclined towards doing anything productive themselves. The correct answer is that “The author feels critics should not be praised over those who actually strive to achieve something.” Many students might have answered that “The author finds critics to be worthless and immoral,” but the words “worthless” and “immoral” are not explicitly used by the author and the tone is slightly less harsh than those words might imply.

Example Question #11 : Content Of Social Science / History Passages

Adapted from The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln (1863)

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

In this passage, the author describes the battlefield as being __________.

Possible Answers:

insignificant

sacred

mythical 

miserable

haunted 

Correct answer:

sacred

Explanation:

The author of this passage is Abraham Lincoln. This passage is adapted from Lincoln’s famous 1863 Gettysburg Address. Lincoln emphasizes the sacred nature of the battlefield; its importance to the Civil War effort. He describes how the men who fought and died on the battlefield, in the name of preserving the union, consecrated (to make sacred or holy) the ground. Lincoln makes no reference to the misery suffered in war, nor would he likely imply that the battle fought at Gettysburg was insignificant. Similarly, there is no mention in the passage of the battlefield being haunted or that its status is mythical (legendary).

Example Question #71 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Ideas In Social Science Or History Passages

Adapted from The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (1776)

The greatest improvements in the productive powers of labor, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is anywhere directed or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labor. The effects of the division of labor, in the general business of society, will be more easily understood by considering in what manner it operates in some particular manufactures. It is commonly supposed to be carried furthest in some very trifling ones; not perhaps that it really is carried further in them than in others of more importance, but in those trifling manufactures that are destined to supply the small wants of but a small number of people, the whole number of workmen must necessarily be small; and those employed in every different branch of the work can often be collected into the same workhouse, and placed at once under the view of the spectator.

In those great manufactures, on the contrary, which are destined to supply the great wants of the great body of the people, every different branch of the work employs so great a number of workmen that it is impossible to collect them all into the same workhouse. We can seldom see more, at one time, than those employed in one single branch. Though in such manufactures, therefore, the work may really be divided into a much greater number of parts, than in those of a more trifling nature, the division is not near so obvious, and has accordingly been much less observed.

To take an example, therefore, from a very trifling manufacture, but one in which the division of labor has been very often taken notice of: the trade of a pin-maker. A workman not educated to this business (which the division of labor has rendered a distinct trade), nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labor has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire; another straights it; a third cuts it; a fourth points it; a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business; to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them.

In every other art and manufacture, the effects of the division of labour are similar to what they are in this very trifling one; though, in many of them, the labour can neither be so much subdivided, nor reduced to so great a simplicity of operation. The division of labour, however, so far as it can be introduced, occasions, in every art, a proportionable increase of the productive powers of labour. The separation of different trades and employments from one another, seems to have taken place, in consequence of this advantage.

Which of the following best states the main idea of the passage?

Possible Answers:

Labor has been most improved in its division; the best example of this is in large industries, such as the large-scale manufacturing of pins.

One can observe the division of labor in the pin-making industry.

While it is easier to observe the division of labor in small-scale industries, considering it in large-scale industries provides a better example of the phenomenon.

The division of labor is an important economics concept that should be applied to both small- and large-scale industries.

Correct answer:

Labor has been most improved in its division; the best example of this is in large industries, such as the large-scale manufacturing of pins.

Explanation:

When answering a question asking you to state the main idea of a passage, it is important to select an answer choice to which each paragraph can relate, but that is not broad enough to include many other ideas that the paragraph doesn’t discuss. In this case, the answer choice “While it is easier to observe the division of labor in small-scale industries, considering it in large-scale industries provides a better example of the phenomenon” doesn’t mention pin-making at all. “The division of labor is an important economics concept that should be applied to both small- and large-scale industries” is incorrect because the author is not claiming that the division of labor should be “applied” to industries, but that it is visible in them. This leaves us with two answer choices: “One can observe the division of labor in the pin-making industry” and “Labor has been most improved in its division; the best example of this is in large industries, such as the large-scale manufacturing of pins.” The latter answer is the best choice because it captures the author’s thesis, which he states in the passage’s first sentence, “The greatest improvements in the productive powers of labor, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is anywhere directed or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labor.” It is also the better answer because it captures the author’s argument about the differences between considering the division of labor in small-scale and large-scale industries.

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