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Better to shake hands or stand your ground?; This year's 'Think-Off' question announced

Pictured is the logo for the "Great American Think-off," which organizer Jamie Robertson of the New York Mills Cultural Center said has attracted interest from across the country in past years. Submitted photo

The 21st annual "Great American Think-Off" essay contest is underway, and organizers say it's off to a roaring start. The contest, put on by the New York Mills Cultural Center, has been heavily publicized in the past, and since the 1990s has inspired average Americans to think more deeply about life's big questions.

The event features essays that are submitted from across the country, with last year's winner hailing from New York state.

This year's topic has already gotten a strong response, said Jamie Robertson, executive director of the Cultural Center. Robertson said that by the end of the day Jan. 1, when the contest opened, six people had submitted completed essays. The debate question they each took a stance on is, "Which is more ethical? Sticking to your principles or being willing to compromise?"

Robertson said the question is intended, in part, to reference recent political turmoil in Washington, D.C. However, entrants to the contest shouldn't base their essays entirely on the national focus, Robertson said. Rather, people should use "their own personal life experience as their entry into the conversation," he said.

Robertson said the ideal essay should also take a specific side in the debate between compromising and sticking with principle, as opposed to adopting an argument that supports both.

"You can't have your cake and eat it too," Robertson said.

Alice Martin, head of the Think-Off committee, said the majority of the essays actually don't come from the New York Mills or Wadena area.

"We'd love to have more responses from the region," Martin said. "Most of our essays come from the metropolitan area and all over the country."

"Think-Off" founder John Davis said he came up with the idea in 1992 in order to help build the discussion of philosophy amongst everyday people, as opposed to scholars in universities.

"Once a question is asked, people are thinking about it around their dinner tables, they're having conversations," Davis said. "That's really fulfilling the mission of the Cultural Center and the "Think-Off" as well; to spark conversations, to spark thought, to spark access to philosophy and the arts."

Robertson said four chosen finalists of the essay contest get to participate in a public debate of the question, to be held June 8 at the James W. Mann Center for the Performing Arts at New York Mills Schools, with travel and lodging expenses paid. Winners are decided by paper ballots handed in by the audience members, Robertson said.

Essays must be postmarked (or time stamped if sent via e-mail) by April 1, and can be a maximum of 750 words in length. Essays can be submitted via conventional mail to Think-Off, PO Box 246, New York Mills, MN 56567. They can also be submitted to the "Think-Off's" website,, or by e-mail to Finalists will be notified by May 1.