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Think-Off on tap June 9

Adam Bright1 / 4
Marie Anderson2 / 4
Ed DeLong3 / 4
Marshall Muirhead4 / 4

The Great American Think-Off will hold its 20th annual contest June 9 - and this time, they are repeating the very first question ever presented: Is humankind inherently good or evil?

The inaugural contest in 1993 posed this question, but the event ended in a draw.

Organizers anticipate the question will be answered 7 p.m. June 9 at the James Mann auditorium in the New York Mills school.

After the debate, a party will allow audience members to mingle and have mini-debates of their own.

Betsy Roder of the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center said the contest has a wide reach, in terms of people who respond, and has garnered somewhat of a following.

A committee reads essays blindly, narrowing them down until they choose two essays on each side of the given issue.

Jamie Robertson, director of the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, said they get about 400 entries each year - so it was very surprising that past winner Marsh Muirhead will be one of the four contestants again this year.

During the event, the first two rounds have people on the same sides debating with each other, and the winners advance to the third and final round. The winner is chosen by the audience.

Robertson said one of the best aspects of the Think-Off is that audiences evaluate the contestants fairly; they pick the strongest argument, even if it is not the argument they happen to agree with.

John Davis, who started the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, founded the Great American Think-Off. He is also the executive director of Lanesboro Arts Center near Rochester, and plans to travel to the 20th contest.

Davis also founded the Kids Philosophy Slam, a similar contest, which awards titles such as "Most Philosophical First Grader In America."

Davis said back in the early 1990s, he wanted to make a philosophy contest accessible to everyday people. It would be in a Final

Four format, similar to sports events.

The way to keep academics from hogging it, he said, was to place a word limit on the essays.

At first, Davis said, people did not think the idea was going to be successful. But the first contest - then called the Great Midwestern Think-Off - attracted responses from all over the country.

Davis said marketing was key in the first few years, as patrons lobbied CSPAN and other major outlets to cover the contest.

National arts magazines and other media outlets have spread the word about the small town's contest, and Roder said a contingency of people around the country look for it every year, waiting for the questions to be released.

Roder also said the questions are interesting to look at in retrospect, as society changes. In 2004, for example, the question was whether same sex marriage should be prohibited. She said if the question was posed now, it would probably be even more debated and attract more attention.

According to a press release sent to the Pioneer Journal, the four finalists for this year's event are from near and far. 

As last year's winner, Marsh is a poet and writer, dentist and flight instructor, living on the banks of the Mississippi River near Bemidji with his retriever, Scout. His poems and stories have been published in The Southeast Review, New Mexico Poetry Review, Minnetonka Review, Rattle, Modern Haiku and elsewhere. He is a contributor to the Canadian poetry website How Pedestrian and is the author of Key West Explained - a guide for travelers.  Marsh will be arguing that the nature of humankind is good.

Ed DeLong, originally from New Orleans, is a World War II veteran who retired from the U.S. Navy as a Lieutenant Commander after 26 years of service. He joined the navy at the age of 15 and participated in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He later worked in the computer industry for Sperry Univac as an automation consultant.  Author of Navy Mustang and co-author of the musical play "Golden Slippers", Ed holds a BA in business administration, and has won numerous writing awards.  Ed and his wife Ruth live in Virginia, and he will argue that the nature of humankind is essentially evil.

Marie Anderson is a married mother of three from Illinois. She graduated from Northern Illinois University with a BA and attended law school at the University of Chicago Law School for two years, before dropping out when she realized a legal career wasn't the right choice for her. Her hobbies are writing short fiction, playing the piano, knitting and playing Scrabble. She works part time in two local public schools supervising grade school children during their lunch/recess and after school.  Her late mother was a St. Cloud girl who married a Chicago soldier after World War II.  Marie's argument centers on the goodness of humankind.

Adam Bright's writing has appeared in GOOD magazine, CNN, Popular Science and The Point. His profile of new age guru Eckhart Tolle was selected for a 2010 Pushcart Prize.  Also in 2010, he received the Massachusetts Humanities "Liberty and Justice for All" grant to create an oral history of the Norfolk Prison Debating Society, a group of prisoners who maintained a nearly unbroken record of wins over top U.S. and international college debate teams from the 1930s through the 1970s. A graduate of Brown, Adam is currently enrolled as an MFA student in poetry at Syracuse University. He will offer his thoughts about the inherent evil of humankind in his essay.

More information on The Great American Think-Off can be found by calling 218-385-3339 or visiting Information can also be found by visiting the Cultural Center in New York Mills.