The Great American Think-Off
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 and backgrounds 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, awarded $500 each, and invited to debate the question in front of a live audience on the second Saturday in June in New York Mills, MN. Costs for winners’ travel (within the United States), food, and lodging will be covered by the Cultural Center.

Since 2016, a category of “Honorable Mention” essays has been recognized along with the traditional Final Four essay winners. Up to five additional top essayists from each side of the debate topic can receive Honorable Mention recognition.

Also beginning in 2016, following a “Battle of Champions” in 2015, a new rule was established: former finalists, while encouraged to enter and eligible to receive Honorable Mentions, ARE NOT eligible for the Final Four again until they have taken a two-year break.

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). In 2023, we celebrated 30 years of asking life’s biggest questions! Click here to see the 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 online between January 1 – April 1 by clicking here (online form preferred), or 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, however, we welcome donations to help us continue to support civil discourse and big thinking in rural America: 

Click here to donate in support of civil discourse >

All are welcome to join us in New York Mills on the second Saturday in June for the live debate and to help answer the year’s question by casting your vote. The debate is held at the New York Mills School Auditorium, with a reception immediately following at the Cultural Center.

2024 question: “Is freedom of speech worth the cost?”

Essays due April 1. Finalists announced May 1. Debate will be held Saturday, June 8, 2024 at the New York Mills School Auditorium. To purchase advance tickets, click below. Adult general admission tickets are $15 at the door or $12 in advance; student tickets are $5. Questions? Call the Cultural Center at 218-385-3339.

Get tickets to the 2024 Think-Off debate >

Please note: while essays are accepted from anywhere around the world, travel costs for finalists are covered for travel within the United States only.