2021: Which is more important: to win or to play by the rules?
2020: No debate held due to COVID-19 global health pandemic.
2019: To vote or not to vote: does it matter?
YES: Minnesotan Jennifer Nelson earned her second “America’s Greatest Thinker” title (her first was in 2014) by successfully arguing that voting DOES matter. Jennifer, a research consultant at the Minnesota House of Representatives, convinced the audience that voting matters because it is an essential part of the overall democratic process.
2018: Which plays a larger role in shaping one’s life: success or failure?
FAILURE: Anthony Berryhill of Austin, TX won over the crowd with his skillful argument that failure plays a larger role in shaping one’s life, saying, “Embracing losing is what allows us to take risks, be vulnerable and be pioneers.”
2017: Has the 2016 election changed our perception of truth?
YES: In the final round, Pamela Lewis distilled her debate performance and won the majority of audience votes with a paraphrase of John F. Kennedy and her own exposition from his quotation, “We cannot be a fully free society and we cannot be fully human unless we protect our need and our quest for the truth.”
2016: Income inequality threatens democracy: agree or disagree?
AGREE: Sam Dennison of San Francisco, CA argued in favor of the proposition, saying, “When wealth changes how we see and interact with each other, that’s where the problem comes in.” The audience voted Sam the Greatest Thinker in America and decided that Income Inequality DOES indeed Threaten Democracy.
2015: Does technology free us or trap us?
FREES: David Lapakko of Richfield, MN, asserted that technology frees us, and was voted America’s Greatest Thinker for 2015. Lapakko won the support of the audience by focusing on the many technological advancements in the fields of medicine, transportation, electricity, and more, that do indeed free us to live more full and rewarding lives.
2014: Love or fear: which motivates us more?
LOVE: Jennifer Nelson of Morris, Minnesota based her case on her personal experience recovering from an automobile crash in 2004, and effectively convinced an enthusiastic crowd that love motivates us to act more than fear.
2013: Which is more ethical: sticking to principle or being willing to compromise?
COMPROMISE: Paul Terry, CEO of StayWell Health Management, won the hearts of the audience with his argument that compromise is more ethical than sticking to principle. Compromise is hard work he told his opponent, Caroline Sposto, in the final round. “Achieving a compromise is actually the best way to stick to my principles,” he added. The Great American Think Off, now in its 21st year, was broadcast live on Lakes Radio.
2012: The nature of humankind: inherently good or inherently evil?
EVIL: This was the first question of the Think-off posed in 1993 and the audience couldn’t decide. Twenty years later Adam Bright of Syracuse, New York made a compelling argument that humankind is inherently evil.
2011: Does poetry matter?
YES: Marsh Muirhead won the 2011 debate saying yes, poetry matters. Muirhead, a dentist and a poet from Bemidji, Minnesota, used as proof the strong example of the popularity and quality of the poetry of former American poet laureate Billy Collins. His opponent, Mahmood Tabaddor of Rochester, Michigan argued that poetry no longer matters to the large majority of Americans who prefer reality shows on television and fantasy novels to pass the time. The audience, however, voted that yes, poetry does matter.
2010: Do the wealthy have an obligation to help the poor?
NO: David Eckel of Clayton, North Carolina, argued No – not because he’s callous or because he’s opposed to giving. He argued that charity isn’t charity if you’ve got no choice. With that, he won the crowd.
2009: Is it ever wrong to do the right thing?
YES: John Pollock, a civil rights attorney from Montgomery, Alabama said yes, is it sometimes wrong to do the right thing. He argued that unintended consequences from our belief that we are doing the right thing can lead to greater evil than we can foresee. In the end, the audience agreed that what is right, at least in America, is an evolving set of ideas, not a static set of principles that never changes.
2008: Does immigration strengthen or threaten the United States?
THREATENS: Craig Allen of West Linn, Oregon said it threatens. He argued, and the audience agreed, that the system of immigration and immigration policy is broken. He says it encourages an influx of illegal immigrants and poses a threat to the country.
2007: Which should you trust more: your head or your heart?
HEART: Joe Kaiser of Minneapolis, MN was the winner of the 2007 debate. Kaiser’s advice: trust your heart. A first time entrant, he ended up competing against his friend, Paul Allick, an ordained priest from Burnsville, MN.
2006: Which is more valuable to society: safety or freedom?
FREEDOM: Sarah Dennison of Minneapolis, Minnesota was the winner. Sarah pointed out that freedom requires courage but that for the future of humanity we must put freedom first.
2005: Competition or cooperation: which benefits society more?
COOPERATION: Blaine Rada, a 40 year old training consultant from Brookfield, Illinois was the winner arguing that Cooperation Benefits Society More. In his closing argument Blaine quoted John F. Kennedy when he said “United there is nothing we can’t do, divided there is nothing we can.”
2004: Should same sex marriages be prohibited?
NO: Robert Lerose said no. He said that marriage is the one enduring institution common to all societies throughout history and pointed out that it can change, and in fact has changed, without diminishing its meaning. The 44 year old writer from Uniondale, New York convinced the small town audience of New York Mills, Minnesota that the exclusive commitment of two people to each other, regardless of gender, could only strengthen the custom of marriage.
2003: Do we reap what we sow?
YES: Brad Buschette said yes and the audience agreed. He said we each have our own internal ethical system that rewards or punishes us on the basis of our actions. The more highly developed that system is, the more obvious it is that we reap what we sow.
2002: Is the pen mightier than the sword?
NO: Paul Higday of Richmond, Virginia said No. It’s not a matter of which has the right, but which has the might. In today’s world it takes the sword to change societies so the pen can flourish.
2001: Should assisted suicide be legal?
YES: Mary Fishler-Fisk of Massachusetts argued for legalization, winning this provocative and often poignant debate with a mere 10 vote lead.
2000: Is democracy fair?
YES: With this debate taking place in June of 2000, the Great American Think-Off was ahead of its time considering the issues that evolved during more recent presidential elections. Both voting audiences; the community audience at the New York Mills Sports Center and the C-SPAN online audience, voted that Peter Hilts’ argument that “YES, DEMOCRACY IS FAIR” was the winner. Hilts is an environmental studies teacher from Lakeville, Minnesota.
1999: Which is more dangerous — science or religion?
SCIENCE: The 1999 Think-Off received essays from contestants in Pakistan, Denmark, Argentina and all over the United States. Mark Friestad, a social studies teacher from North Dakota, won the final debate arguing that science is more dangerous because people often accept it blindly without question.
1998: Is honesty always the best policy?
NO: A record year, the 1998 Think-Off received over 820 essays, and the final debate was broadcast live on C-SPAN. As the country grappled with the spectacle in the White House, the Think-Off audience and the C-SPAN viewing audience agreed with a soft-spoken priest from New York–honesty is not always the best choice.
1997: Is the death penalty ethical in a civilized society?
NO: The 1997 Think-Off received entries from 45 states. The 2001 Think-Off spokesperson, Steve Schulz won by explaining how even though his father was murdered, he feels the death penalty is unethical.
1996: Does God exist?
YES: The 1996 Think-Off received over 700 entries from throughout the U.S. After an engaging debate, the audience vote (with many abstentions) decided that God does exist.
1995: Money or morality — which does society value more?
MONEY: A 66 year-old retired stenographer and a 16 year-old Eagle Scout argued morality, but were toppled by a graduate student and a UPS worker arguing that money is the most important value in America.
1994: Does life have meaning?
YES: A close debate, but ultimately it was decided that life does have meaning–as proven by commercial fisherman Peter Hilts.
1993: The nature of humankind: inherently good or inherently evil?
UNDECIDED: A priest, a newspaper editor, a 15 year-old cheerleader and a former tribal police officer made such strong arguments that the audience couldn’t decide if mankind is good or evil, leaving the question forever unresolved. (…Until 2012 when it was debated again, and evil won.)