Except for last summer, when it was canceled because of the pandemic, the contest has been held in the west-central Minnesota town since 1993. During that first contest, then known as the Great Midwestern Think-Off, the question was whether the inherent nature of humankind is good or evil. No one won the debate that night, and the question — at least in the eyes of those attending the event — remained unanswered. It was asked again in 2012, when Adam Bright, a writer from Syracuse, N.Y., argued that we’re all inherently evil and won the debate.
The Think-Off is billed as a philosophy contest for non-philosophers. Finalists have included a home builder, a commercial fisherman, teachers and lawyers. It was the idea of an artist named John Davis, who moved to New York Mills from Minneapolis in the late 1980s. He told me he came with some preconceived notions about rural life and rural people — notions that dissolved as he acclimated to his new community. “I learned that there was a thirst for poetry, for visual arts, for opera,” Davis, 59, told me.
Eventually, a combination of luck and tenacity birthed the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center. Davis then envisioned a showcase event and settled on an Everyman philosophy competition. He wanted to show that, as with art, something as ivory tower as philosophical debate could be enjoyed and appreciated by anyone. He also knew, he told me, that it was an unusual enough concept to pique people’s interest far beyond the town’s borders.
The competition remains the marquee event of the center and kicks off each January with the announcement of the year’s question. It can be timely — like 2017’s question about whether the 2016 election changed our perception of truth — or it can be timeless: In 2011, the question was “Does poetry matter?” “The idea is that these are profound questions, asked in a very simple way,” says Betsy Roder, the center’s executive director. Entrants pick a side, and then defend their position in 750 words or fewer. Drawing from real life, particularly personal experience, is encouraged. Four finalists — two from each side — receive $500 and a trip to New York Mills to read their essays and defend their positions before an audience.
Roder explains that the event has always been centered on civil discourse, which in today’s polarized environment may be more relevant than ever. Ultimately, it’s the audience members who decide the winner by ballot: “Not who they believe in necessarily, but who makes the best argument,” Roder told me. “We’re really asking the audience to truly consider what is being said.”
In 2004, Robert Lerose, a writer from Long Island, N.Y., sat down to answer that year’s question: “Should same-sex marriage be prohibited?” Lerose, who is neither gay nor married, drew instead on his childhood: “As an argument against gay marriage, I remember hearing that you needed the unique traits of a father and the unique traits of a mother to raise children,” he says, explaining that his own father died when he was young but he still felt loved and supported. “And so the idea the traditional family is the best way for a child to grow up just did not make any sense to me at all.”
Lerose says that he began writing his essay with definite opinions, “but I also made a promise to myself that I was going to keep an open mind and weigh both sides, because I thought the integrity of the contest and the integrity of having an honest intellectual debate required that.” In the end, his arguments — which also drew on the valuable contributions that gay Americans have made to society, and the inherent unfairness of same-sex marriage prohibition — earned the most votes from the audience.
Roder estimates a couple of hundred people from the United States and overseas submitted essays on this year’s question. The committee, made up of community members, asks for demographic information but redacts it from the essays so those making the selections don’t know who is writing, or where they’re from. This year, three of the four finalists are from Minnesota. Dan Tschida, 55, is one of them. He teaches government, economics and sociology at a suburban Minneapolis high school, but was previously a lawyer. He has loosely followed the Think-Off for several years, but this was the first time he submitted an essay.
At this year’s debate he’ll argue that playing by the rules is more important. “It has a lot to do with the fact that I’m a lawyer and I teach government,” he told me. “I think my argument is basically that winning is temporary ... and rules are enduring. They are more likely to protect all interests and reflect fundamental human values.”
AJ Gil of Atlanta is taking the opposite stance. He found out about the contest on a writers’ email group and thought it sounded interesting. A debater in high school, he currently is a sales rep for a cable company, and writes and performs comedy on the side. He’s also a lawyer who previously worked on immigration.
Gil decided that if he has to choose, he thinks winning is ultimately more important. “If you don’t win, you don’t get to make the rules,” he says. “Having my experience in law, I can tell you certainly, especially in immigration law, a number of the rules aren’t just. So I thought of it from that perspective and said, well, if the rules are unjust, you have to break them and you have to win to change them.”
On the night of the contest, Tschida, Gil and the two other finalists will gather before an audience of 200 to 300. (Roder says the expected audience size will allow for physical distancing.) The winner will be declared “America’s Greatest Thinker.”
For Robert Lerose, his 2004 visit to the Think-Off was electrifying — and one of the best experiences of his life. There was value, he explains, in being in a space that was thoughtful and engaging, with people who could have an honest disagreement. “I may not agree with what you’re saying,” he says, “but you’ve given me something to think about. Even if minds were not changed, if you learned something that you did not know prior to going in there, that’s a victory also.”
Lia Kvatum is a writer and producer in the D.C. area.