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 through April 1st (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.

All are welcome to join us in New York Mills on the second Saturday in June for the live debate and to help answer each year’s question by casting your vote.  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.

2017 Think-Off Question Announced

“Has the 2016 election changed our perception of truth?”







The 25th annual Great American Think-Off question is a heavy-hitter in that it not only addresses the 2016 election for timely relevance, but also tackles the timeless and elusive concept of truth.

The committee asked for input from the public this year because of the importance of the 25th anniversary of the contest, as well as the environment surrounding the 2016 election. As suggestions were received and discussions ensued, several relevant themes emerged: questions about democracy, truth, diversity, cultural relativism, hope for the future. Committee members debated long and hard over which of these themes was most important, most relevant, most truly philosophical. People felt passionate and meetings ran long.

Typically, the goal is to avoid “trendy” cultural questions and instead look for more timeless philosophical topics. However, the sense emerged that 2016 may be a turning point in our nation’s history, and the alleged change in our concept of TRUTH, or post-truth, or “truthiness” will likely be discussed in the history books for decades to come. So, the decision was made to see what the armchair philosophers are saying about it today.

As always, entrants are encouraged to take a strong stand and base their arguments on personal experience and observations rather than philosophical abstraction. The contest is open to anyone, and there is no fee to enter. Simply submit an essay explaining your position in 750 words or less by April 1, 2017 for a chance to win one of four $500 cash prizes and a trip to New York Mills for the live debate. 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.

Two winning entries from each side will be selected by May 1, 2017, and the writers invited to debate the question on Saturday, June 10, 2017 in front of a live audience in New York Mills, Minnesota. Each of the four finalists receives $500, and a chance to win the bronze, silver, or gold medals by participating in this unique civic event. Costs for the winners’ travel, food, and lodging are also covered.

A category of “honorable mentions” will again be acknowledged this year. This new recognition began in 2016 in response to past finalist input and the committee’s effort to showcase the wide variety of high quality essays received in addition to the top four selections. Organizers hope it will once again encourage even more armchair philosophers to participate, knowing that even if they don’t win a trip to New York Mills, their opinions might still be recognized and published.

Also established in 2016 and continuing this year is the rule that past finalists must take a two year break before being considered for another Final Four appearance. This rule was instituted in order to ensure a greater variety of participants enter the contest. However, former finalists are still encouraged to enter and are eligible to receive honorable mentions.

Think-Off LogoAbout the Great American Think-Off:

Now in its 25th 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 Cultural Center, located in the rural farm and manufacturing town of New York Mills, Minnesota, sponsors this annual philosophy contest and encourages people of all ages and backgrounds to participate.

If you are interested in attending the 2017 Think-Off debate, you can buy tickets online at or call the Cultural Center at 218-385-3339. Tickets are $15 at the door or $12 in advance.

Submit Questions!


After 25 years of debating controversial philosophies, the Cultural Center is turning to the general public for question ideas for the Great American Think-Off’s 25th Anniversary in 2017.

Question ideas and suggestions can be submitted to or mailed to P.O. Box 26, New York Mills, MN 56567 by Dec. 1 to be considered.


2016 Think-Off: Income Inequality Threatens Democracy

DSCN84912016 America’s Greatest Thinker Named

In the 24th annual Great American Think-Off, Sam Dennison of San Francisco, California successfully argued that income inequality does indeed threaten democracy.

Silver medalist Alex Liuzzi also gave a convincing argument, but the audience cast their votes in favor of Sam’s position, and thus another year’s topic has been resolved.

Bronze medalists Alice Obrecht and Kim Larson also argued their points eloquently in what was a close vote in all three rounds of debate. All four finalists are pictured below following the awards ceremony.



Sam Dennison, Kim Larson, Alice Obrecht, Alex Liuzzi

Sam’s essay and debate focused on the argument that democracy cannot survive without equality. Throughout the evening, Sam gave many poignant examples of the result of growing income disparity rampant in the US, and how that disparity causes hopelessness and thus leads to the breakdown of democracy.

In the final round, Sam debated Alex Liuzzi of St. Paul, MN, who supported his position that income inequality does not threaten democracy on the premise that it instead motivates democratic participation. While Alex agreed with Sam in that income inequality and poverty are very real issues, he argued that participation in the process of democracy is actually a way to help resolve these issues of disparity.

In the first round, bronze medalist Alice Obrecht, currently residing in London, defended her position that income inequality erodes accountability and thus threatens democracy. Her supporting examples focused on the fact that people in impoverished situations sometimes make choices that improve their short-term situation out of necessity rather than reflecting on their full range of values and the potential for long-term improvements.

Bronze medalist Kim Larson of Moorhead, MN presented her argument in the second round that disparity of income is not the issue, selfishness and complacency are. She argued her belief that inequalities will always exist, and democracy works because each person is given a vote, and that income inequality would not be considered a threat at all if people simply cared more about their neighbors and community, regardless of income levels. Further, she opined that complacent citizens not exercising their right to vote, or voting for what best benefits themselves instead of the greater good, is the real threat to democracy.

Each of the four finalists effectively argued their positions, and the result was another year of intelligent, thought-provoking, and civil debate. The Cultural Center would like to thank this year’s finalists, sponsors, and attendees for helping make the 24th annual Great American Think-Off a resounding success.