Great American Think-Off since 1993

Wondering about what the Think-Off is?Basic RGB

The Great American Think-Off is an exhibition of civil disagreement between powerful ideas that connect to your life at the gut level. The Cultural Center, located in the rural farm and manufacturing town of New York Mills, sponsors this annual philosophy contest. People of all ages are encouraged to submit an essay of no more than 750 words for a chance to win one of four $500 cash prizes and participate in the live debate to ultimately answer the question, determined by audience vote.

The question is released each year on January 1st.  Essays are then accepted January 1 through April 1 (postmark or electronic date stamp), with the finalists announced May 1st.  The debate is held each year on the second Saturday in June.

Writers are encouraged to ground their essays in personal experience rather than philosophical abstraction. Each year, four writers will be selected as finalists and invited to debate the question on the second Saturday in June in New York Mills, MN. Costs for winners’ travel, food, and lodging will be covered by the Cultural Center.

The first annual debate took place in 1993 and asked the question “The Nature of Humankind: Inherently Good or Inherently Evil?“.  Since then, each year, four finalists present their ideas in front of a live audience who votes to crown America’s Greatest Thinker.  Subsequent questions have included “Does Life Have Meaning?” (1994), “Does God Exist? ” (1996), “Is the Pen Mightier than the Sword?” (2002), “Is it ever wrong to do the right thing?” (2009), and “Does Technology Free Us or Trap Us?“(2015). Click here to see a full list of past questions.

The Think-Off was begun by Cultural Center founder John Davis and has been held annually since 1993.  To participate, submit an essay on-line between January 1 – April 1, by clicking on the headline above, by email to, or by mail to Think-Off, c/o Cultural Center, P.O. Box 246, New York Mills, MN 56567.  There is no fee to enter.  After April 1st, join us in New York Mills for the live debate and to help answer each year’s question by casting your vote.  Cost to attend is $12 in advance or $15 at the door.  The debate is held at the New York Mills School with a reception immediately following at the Cultural Center.  Tickets can be purchased online at Brown Paper Tickets or by calling the Cultural Center at 218-385-3339.

2016 Think-Off Finalists Announced

The Cultural Center in New York Mills proudly announces the four finalists for the 2016 Great American Think-Off! These four individuals will travel to New York Mills this June to go head-to-head in three rounds of debate to settle this year’s topic: Income Inequality Threatens Democracy. Join us on

Saturday, June 11th at 7pm

for the great debate. All the essay entries were read, re-read, and judged by our panel, resulting in the following four finalists (in alphabetical order):

Sam Dennison 2016Sam Dennison
income inequality DOES threaten democracy

Exactly ten years ago, Sam was selected as a finalist in the 2006 Great American Think Off, arguing successfully that freedom is more valuable than safety. At that time, Sam worked in higher education both as a teacher and administrator in Minneapolis, and has since changed both name and location, but not a passion for social justice and love for civil debate.

Nowadays, Sam lives and works in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, CA at Faithful Fools, a non-profit dedicated to building community through art, education, advocacy and healing. This organization is deeply engaged with issues of poverty, homelessness, and now in the face of intense development, increasing and soul-crushing income inequality. So it was only natural that Sam submit an essay on this year’s Great American Think Off topic: Income Inequality Threatens Democracy.

Sam is honored and grateful to once again be chosen as one of the final four, and is looking forward to seeing old friends and engaging in a lively conversation with the other finalists at the Cultural Center in New York Mills.



Kim Larson
income inequality does NOT threaten democracy

Kim Larson retired from a career in mortgage lending in 2010 to pursue her dream of writing. Her poetry and short stories have since been published in the Lake Region Review and The Talking Stick. Kim has completed two novels and is currently working on a nonfiction book. Besides leading a writing group that meets twice a month in her home, Kim enjoys gardening, both flowers and vegetables. She has two grown sons, two married stepchildren, and a dozen grandchildren. She and Chuck, her loving and supportive husband of twenty-one years, live in Moorhead, MN.





Alex Liuzzi
income inequality does NOT threaten democracy

Alex lives in St. Paul, MN with his spouse and three children. After more than two decades teaching students from age 1 through 82, he is now working as a Teacher Education Specialist for the Minnesota Board of Teaching. In the spare time that he does not have, he self-publishes novels, swing dances, listens to the Minnesota Twins, and ruminates on political and philosophical issues.






Alice Obrecht
income inequality DOES threaten democracy

Originally from Wheaton, IL, Alice currently resides in London, England, carrying out research on international humanitarian assistance for the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance (ALNAP). Her background is in NGO ethics and performance, with a focus on accountability. Alice earned her PhD from the London School of Economics and carried out field work and consultancy research in Mongolia and Kenya.





Now in its 24th year, The Great American Think-Off is an exhibition of civil disagreement between powerful ideas being explored by every day people. Designed to bring philosophy down from the ivory towers of academia and make it accessible for all, the contest has received national acclaim including coverage by C-SPAN, the New York Times, and The Today Show.

The debate will be held in the James Mann Center for the Performing Arts at the New York Mills School on Saturday, June 11th, 2016 at 7pm. Tickets are $12 in advance or $15 at the door and can be purchased now online at Brown Paper Ticket (click here) or by calling the Cultural Center at (218) 385-3339.

2016 Think-Off Poster

Calling all Americans to participate in this annual civil disagreement of powerful ideas. This year’s topic is especially relevant in our current political climate as we approach the presidential election. Click here to submit your essay today! Deadline is April 1st. There is no fee to enter. Click on the poster below to print or share electronically.


Think-Off ‘Honorable Mentions’ Opportunity Announced

More Ways to Win in 2016 Great American Think-Off

IMG_3160 copyAmerica’s everyday philosophers have a new incentive to share their thoughts with the nation this year.

The Great American Think-Off, a philosophy contest held annually in the small rural town of New York Mills, Minnesota, is now offering a category of “Honorable Mentions” along with the traditional Final Four winners. Five additional top essayists from each side will receive a “Great American Thinker” certificate, their choice of Think-Off memorabilia, recognition in the Think-Off program, and will have their essays published after the final debate.

Executive Director Betsy Roder explains, “The judging committee often reads essays that raise excellent points even if the entrants don’t quite make the cut to the Final Four. This is a way the Think-Off can showcase the wide variety of responses we get in addition to the top selections. We also hope it encourages more armchair philosophers to participate, knowing that even if they aren’t selected as one of the top four, their opinions might still be honored, and they may still be able to win a prize and be published.”

With a national election right around the corner, this year the Great American Think-Off wants to know if people agree or disagree with this statement: “Income Inequality Threatens Democracy”. Although the question format is slightly different from years past, entrants should still take a strong stand agreeing or disagreeing, and are encouraged to base their arguments on personal experience and observations rather than philosophical abstraction.

There is no fee to enter the contest; simply submit an essay explaining your position in 750 words or less by April 1, 2016. Essays can be submitted online (click here), by email to, or by mail to Think-Off, c/o Cultural Center, P.O. Box 246, New York Mills, MN 56567.

In addition to the ten Honorable Mentions, the two top entries from each side will be selected by May 1, 2016, and these four writers invited to debate the topic live on Saturday, June 11, 2016 in New York Mills. Each of the four top finalists receives $500, and a chance to win the bronze, silver, or gold medals by participating in this unique civic event. The event’s host, the New York Mills Cultural Center, also covers costs for the Final Four’s travel, food, and lodging.

Tickets to attend this event are now available for sale. Cost is $12 in advance or $15 at the door. Tickets can be purchased online at Brown Paper Tickets or by calling the Center or stopping by.

For more information, contact the Cultural Center at 218-385-3339.