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Active reading step | History passage | Reading test | SAT

David demonstrates an active reading strategy for a History passage on the SAT Reading test. Created by David Rheinstrom.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] We're looking at the history part of the SAT reading section. I want you to imagine it's test day, and you turn the page only to see this scary-looking passage sitting here. I mean, look at this thing, three huge, fat, dense paragraphs full of intimidating 18th-century language. So what do you do? You take a deep breath and walk through the steps. We are gonna take control of this passage by being careful and methodical. I'm not scared of you, the past! Here's the plan. First, I'll read the blurb, then I'll skim the questions for targets and map out the passage. This will enable me to tackle the passage in big chunks, doing questions as I go along. So okay, step one, let's go back to the passage. Read the blurb. "This passage is adapted from Edmund Burke, 'Reflections on the Revolution in France.' Originally published in 1790. Edmund Burke was a British politician and scholar. In 1789," so the previous year, "the French formed a new governmental body known as the National Assembly, ushering in the tumultuous period of social and political change," gotta underline tumultuous, "known as the French Revolution." Okay, this is just loaded with helpful information. So Edmund Burke, this British guy, is gonna be giving us his perspective on how France's new government, this National Assembly, is doing. He's writing this in 1790, and the assembly was formed, it says, in 1789, so just the previous year. The blurb also gives us this notion that it's tumultuous, messy, noisy, stormy. So maybe it's not going so great, since it leads, after all, to the French Revolution. Okay, the next step is to skim and survey the questions. So I'm gonna see if there's anything to be gleaned from a super quick skim through the questions. I'm gonna underline keywords in those questions, and mark things in the margins, making what we call a map of the passage. So watch as I go. I'm gonna do this with an extremely light touch. Okay, first question, question 33. "It can reasonably be inferred from the passage that Burke is upset with the National Assembly's decision to" blank. I'm gonna take a look at this one after, maybe, I read that first big fat paragraph, I'm gonna underline particularly upset. Next, question 34 is asking for evidence for the previous question. Okay, so I'll come back to this later. Question 35, "as used in line 17," I'm gonna look for the word instruments, and then I'm gonna move on. Da, da, da, da, da, 15, 17, instruments, there we go. Moving on to question 36, "Based on the passage, Burke believes that French leaders who would advocate moderate positions are" blank. Here I'm gonna underline the word moderate positions. Question 37, "As used in line 30, the word sober most nearly means" blank. All right, so I'm gonna look for line 30. There's 30, there's the word sober. Gonna underline it, move on to question 38. "Burke's central claim in the last paragraph," so let's find that last paragraph and put a big old bracket around it. That's a long paragraph, all right. And that's all we're gonna do with that for now. Question 39, "Burke refers to the repair of a building in line 70 to 72." So let's go to that line call out, 72, 72, there is mentioned the building. And it wants to know what the purpose of that is. So I'm gonna just write why in the margin. Why did he do it, what's the point he's making? And then question 40, "In the passage, Burke displays the greatest respect for which of the following?" Okay, gotta read the whole passage to understand this one. And question 41 needs me to find support for question 40, the previous question. That's all I need to do in this step, let's move on. Question 42, last question, has a line reference in line 76 to 77, and let's underline those looking for the words gentlemen of France. 75, 76, the gentlemen of France. And we're done. If you do that skimming step right, it should take you less than a minute, and you're ready to dig into the passage. Remember, as you read, you're looking for big picture ideas. I'm looking for central claims, and I'm not gonna worry too much about the supporting details right now. Okay, ready? Let's do this. Now, I'm gonna throw in a quick question step. If I head to the passage with a question, it can help my brain get interested in the answer. So, I'm gonna go back up to the top, and I'm gonna ask myself what does EB, what does Edmund Burke think of the NA, the National Assembly? Let's find out, this is going to be interesting. So now we're gonna do step three from our strategy, which is tackle the passage in big chunks. Let's begin, first paragraph. "To make a government requires no great prudence. Settle the seat of power, teach obedience, and the work is done. To give freedom is still more easy. It is not necessary to guide, it only requires to let go of the rein. But," and I always underline words like but, "to form a free government, that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work, requires much thought, deep reflections, a sagacious powerful, and combining mind. This I do not find in those who take the lead in the National Assembly." Burke is not impressed with the National Assembly. I'm going to put some minus signs here to show that Burke is not impressed, this is a negative impression of the National Assembly. "Perhaps they are not so miserably deficient as they appear." I'm gonna put another minus sign there, that's sort of a backhanded compliment. Maybe they're not so terrible. "I rather believe it. It would put them below the common level of human understanding. But," and again, I'm gonna underline this but, "when the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators, the instruments," and there's that word for a question later, "the instruments, not the guides of the people. If any of them should happen to propose a scheme of liberty, soberly limited and defined with proper qualifications, he will be immediately outbid by his competitors who will produce something more splendidly popular." All right, so Burke doesn't like things that are popular. "Suspicions will be raised of his fidelity to his cause. Moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards, and compromise as the prudence of traitors," whoo! "Until in hopes of preserving the credit which may enable him to temper and moderate, on some occasions, the popular leader is obliged to become active in propagating doctrines and establishing powers that will afterwards defeat any sober purpose at which he ultimately might have aimed." Dang! So Burke does not like the National Assembly. He's saying that the leaders of the National Assembly are instruments of the people, which Burke says is bad. Right? He describes this as an auction of popularity. He's saying that this kind of populism results in spectacle rather than sober, sensible ideas. He's saying that the National Assembly in France generates clickbait. So let's sum this up by saying Burke's view of the National Assembly is mob-ruled by clickbait. 'Cause remember, he's saying any moderation or compromise will be seen as cowardice or treason. Yikes! Now listen, on test day, I'd stop here and try to answer all the questions relevant to this first paragraph. That's questions 33 through 37. The information is fresh in my mind, and I can hop right in and go through those questions quickly. I'm going to keep pushing through now, though, and I'm gonna break those questions into individual videos later on to showcase the skills and strategies needed to tackle them. All right, let's keep going with paragraph two. "But am I so unreasonable as to see nothing at all that deserves commendation in the indefatigable labors of this Assembly?" So Burke is saying like, surely I should be able to say like one nice thing about the National Assembly, right? So I'm gonna put a little plus sign with a question mark. "I do not deny that among an infinite number of acts of violence and folly, some good may have been done." I'm gonna put a little like kind of plus here. "They who destroy everything "certainly will remove some grievance." So I think what he's saying is like, they may have thrown the baby out with the bath water, but there might have been some bad stuff in that bath water, I'll give them that. "They who make everything new have a chance that they may establish something beneficial. To give them credit for what they have done in virtue of the authority they have usurped, or which can excuse them in the crimes by which that authority has been acquired, it must appear that the same things could not have been accomplished without producing such a revolution." Okay, so let's say you really have no idea what this guy is talking about. That's okay. And to prove it to you, I'm just gonna keep on going. It may be that all I need to know is the overall gist of this paragraph. I can let the harder, more confusing sentences just wash over me, as long as I have a general sense of what he's trying to say. "Most assuredly they might. Some usages have been abolished on just grounds, but they were such that if they had stood as they were to all eternity, they would little detract from the happiness and prosperity of any state. The improvements of the National Assembly are superficial, their errors fundamental." Oh, thank goodness! So that final sentence helps me feel better, that I might not have understood any of what was said in the last few sentences. But that final sentence of the paragraph really encapsulates it for me. So he's saying here that the ends didn't justify the means. Whatever superficial good they may have accomplished has been achieved unjustly. There is a central flaw, the error is fundamental. Now listen, Burke is using a high-flown style of language that was a lot more common two centuries ago, longer sentences, flowery vocabulary, but one aspect of that language is that Burke tends to repeat himself a lot. He makes the same points multiple times throughout a paragraph. So even if you struggle with an individual sentence, the most important thing is to get the overall idea. So I'm gonna put like a little question mark here, but then at the end, it's just all negative, right? I'm gonna summarize this paragraph by writing, revolution not worth the cost. All right, final paragraph, paragraph three. "Whatever they are, I wish my countrymen rather to recommend to our neighbors the example of the British constitution than to take models from them for the improvement of our own." All right, so that's, that's really our topic sentence here. He's saying that France can learn from Britain rather than the other way around. And let's see why that is, why does he think that's so? "In the former," and here he's referring to the British constitution, "they have got an invaluable treasure." He's saying the British constitution is an invaluable treasure. "They are not, I think, without some causes of apprehension and complaint." And they here, I believe, refers to my countrymen, as in other people from Britain. "Are not without some causes of apprehension or complaint, but these they do not owe to their constitution, but to their own conduct. I think our happy situation owing to our constitution, but owing to the whole of it, and not to any part singly, owing in a great measure to what we have left standing in our several reviews and reformations as well as to what we have altered or superadded." Our happy situation, he's saying, Britain is good. "Our people will find employment enough for a truly patriotic, free, and independent spirit in guarding what they possess from violation." He's saying he likes Britain the way it is. "I would not exclude alteration neither, but even when I changed, it should be to preserve. I should be led to my remedy by a great grievance. In what I did, I should follow the example of our ancestors. I would make the reparation as nearly as possible in the style of the building." So I'm gonna underline the example of our ancestors. I'm getting the sense of like preserving, conserving, doing stuff in the old way, repairing rather than renovating a building. "A politic caution, a guarded circumspection, a moral, rather than a complexional timidity were among the ruling principles of our forefathers in their most decided conduct." So again, all I'm getting from this sentence is careful, careful, careful, careful. "Not being illuminated with the light of which the gentlemen of France tell us they have got so abundant a share, they acted under a strong impression of the ignorance and fallibility of mankind." Kind of snarky, Edmund! He's saying the French claim to be like super, super smart, and that despite this, the British persevered even without being bathed in that light, and made a government system that anticipated that people would be fallible or ignorant. I think it's important to note here that people in the past were also sarcastic, also told jokes. Just because it's old, doesn't mean it can't bring the heat, you know? All right, "He that had made them thus fallible rewarded them for having in their conduct attended to their nature. Let us imitate their caution if we wish to deserve their fortune or to retain their bequests. Let us add, if we please, but let us preserve what they have left, and standing on the firm ground of the British constitution, let us be satisfied to admire rather than attempt to follow in their desperate flights the aeronauts of France." So I'm gonna underline a couple things about this last sentence. So, let us add, but let us also preserve. We are on firm ground with the British constitution, and the French are like aeronauts, like balloonists, or people attempting to fly. And remember, this is the 18th century, so there weren't planes. This final sentence really summarizes the main idea, it gets at the whole point of Burke's argument. The British constitution makes the country stable, and while France is experimenting with new forms of government, he thinks it's better to sit on the sidelines and watch than imitate them. Because it's sort of like watching somebody failing in slow motion. I'd like to summarize this last paragraph as Britain is good the way it is. He's saying that cautious change in small steps should only happen when serious problems arise, and that France is heading off on a wild, unpredictable direction. Okay, so we finished the passage, and now I'm ready to head to the questions. Let's review my strategy. As you read, you should be looking for positives and negatives, also always be looking for contrasts and continuation words like but or therefore. These words will help you get the shape of a writer's argument. Where and how do they make contrasts or transitions in the passage? Always try to sum up each paragraph in your own words as you go along. If you're feeling lost, you can usually get the gist from the first and last sentences in each paragraph. That's a great place to identify topic sentences or summary sentences for each individual paragraph, and for the passage as a whole. Remember not to get bogged down in the quicksand of fancy vocab words. Chances are pretty good that an important idea will be conveyed multiple times in multiple ways. So stay calm and stay flexible. Good luck out there, you've got this!