The Great American Think-Off
In 1992, the tiny town of New York Mills had a groundbreaking idea: bring together deep thinkers to ponder some of life's mysteries. This year, Gophers dominated the competition.
What the Heck is a Think-Off?
The Great American Think-Off
debate has been central to the programming of the New York Mills Regional
Cultural Center, founded in 1990 to give local businesses a boost by raising
the profile of the town. The Center cultivates rural creativity with art
classes, exhibitions, an artist residency, and public events.
With Think-Off finalists judged solely on the quality of their arguments, the results have been decidedly egalitarian. Finalists have ranged from high schoolers to retirees, mail carriers to priests to dentists. Current Executive Director Betsy Roeder says, “Our purpose has always been to encourage deep thinking on the part of everybody. We’re not anti-Ph.D., but we believe you don’t necessarily need to have an advanced degree to have great ideas and fresh perspectives.”
The Great American Think-Off is likely the only
international debate competition whose finals take place in a rural Midwestern town of 1,300
The brainchild of John Davis, an artist-turned-community-development visionary,
the Think-Off has been held every year since 1993 (except for 2020) in New York
Mills, a Minnesota hamlet about 80 miles east of Fargo, North Dakota. At the
Think-Off, anyone in the world is invited to submit a 750-word essay on the
year’s debate topic—always a big one, like “Are people basically good or evil?”
or “Is it ever wrong to do the right thing?” In a blind-judging process, the
hundreds of responses are winnowed down to the four strongest arguments—two on
each side of the question—and the writers are then invited to New York Mills
for a showdown.
The phenomenon of decades of serious intellectual combat among
the corn and soybean fields of Otter Tail County has prompted coverage by the
likes of the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. For a while, the
finals were even carried on C-Span; today they’re simulcast on Facebook Live.
And in the history of the contest, there’s never been a situation quite like
2021, in which three of the four finalists had strong connections with a single
institution of higher learning: the University of Minnesota. On June 12, Bill
Sutherland (B.E.E. ’70), who runs a consulting engineering firm; current high
school teacher Dan Tschida (J.D. ’92); and Angela Stehr, a program specialist
in the U of M’s Institute for Astrophysics, faced off against each other and
against Atlanta attorney and writer A.J. Gil—the only non-Gopher in the group.
The topic: “Which is more important: to win or to play by the rules?” Arguing
for winning: Gil and Stehr. For rule-following: Sutherland and Tschida.
Sutherland founded MinnTech Consulting Engineers in 1984.
The firm specializes in analyzing electrical failures that have produced big
problems, like fires or personal injuries, and sometimes provides expert testimony
in hearings and trials. “The analysis we do concerns how and why something
happened, how and why we got to this point,” he says. “Ruminating on those
kinds of questions with respect to what rules are for helped me to put my
qualifying essay together, I think.” And he credits a U of M undergrad course
on ethics with sparking a lifelong interest in philosophical conundrums.
Tschida’s life took a turn when, after parlaying his U of M law degree into a
seven-year stint with a major Twin Cities law firm, he became a high school
history teacher. “The moment came when I decided that if I was going to
continue with law, I would need to get a lot more enjoyment out of it than I
was getting,” Tschida says. “I like interacting with people, and I’m a generalist
who loves discussing big ideas—so high school history
teaching just drew me.”
Tschida has known about the Think-Off debate for a
while and occasionally brought up its perplexing big issues with his students.
Sutherland first heard about it this year. But Angela Stehr is a superfan. Not
only has she attended nearly all of the debates since 2008 and submitted
multiple essays, she’s also suggested many Think-Off topics. In 2021, she
finally got the nod from New York Mills. “I love the event because the people
who come to it really listen for the stronger argument,” she says. “I’ve
actually been convinced to totally change my opinion on a significant issue
because of a Think-Off presentation.”
Gearing Up for Battle
kickoff was a reception the night before the debate in the art gallery of the
Cultural Center building, a refitted 19th-century furniture store on the town’s
main drag. A big table of savory and sweet finger food stood at one end of the
gallery, and the gift shop was open, selling Cultural Center merch along with
Ittala glassware and other Finnish items (New York Mills was originally settled
by Finns, and their tough-and-smart spirit pervades the town).
were there, as were a bunch of artists and art lovers—the party was also a
celebration of the Center’s newest exhibition of local painting and sculpture.
Sutherland, Tschida, and Stehr were in good spirits, but all three retired
early to get in some last-minute debate prep.
(Their lodgings were as unique as the contest itself—a bed-and-breakfast that
features railway cars converted into hotel rooms on wheels.)
The next evening,
attendees rolled up to New York Mills’ single public school, a sprawling
building that houses classes from pre-K to 12th grade. On the auditorium stage
stood three podia draped in the kind of red, white, and blue bunting that
decorated the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The host welcomed us, then introduced
the debate moderator, Tami Vigesaa, a sociology professor at Minnesota State in
In the first round, two debaters duke it out with each other. So
the pro-winning pair, Stehr and Gil, took the stage first. They read their
qualifying essays, laying out their basic lines of argument.
Stehr: “What if
the rules are unjust and need to be broken? If something is really worth
fighting for, it may be worth breaking the rules for.” She cited heroic rule-breakers like Rosa
Parks. Gil asserted that the winners in political and social struggles make the
rules, and so “winning matters, because it’s the only way to get rules worth
following.” Vigesaa followed with probing questions, and the debaters
questioned each other, too.
The audience determines the winner, via tear-out
ballots in the evening’s program. Cub scouts—male and female, in
uniform—gathered the ballots. And who did the audience decide would carry the
“winning wins” banner into the final round?
One Gopher down.
Battle: Part 2
Sutherland and Tschida’s face-off was focused on a subtle
contrast. Sutherland drew on his own experience in courtrooms by asserting that
paying attention to rules is vital because people in the same “game” may
actually be following different rules, as when lawyers go up against technical
experts. Somehow, he said, the rules have to be adjusted and agreed upon so
that more contests can be win-win. Tschida focused on the long term: “In
following the rules, we commit to enduring values, not temporary passions.” He
won the round.
Two Gophers down, one remaining to go head-to-head with
University of Florida/Villanova alumnus Gil. Now it was the battle of the
Gil reasserted that if we want better rules, we need to win to make
them; Tschida countered that the principle of “better rules” is itself a rule,
as are all guiding principles.
The winner again and Think-Off champ 2021: U of
M alumnus Tschida.
In a way, the U of M carried the day. With good-natured hyperbole,
the lawyer-turned-teacher was named “America’s Greatest Thinker” on the
Center’s web site. But as the host pointed out at the end, all were winners. They
were, after all, selected out of hundreds of intelligent arguers to wrestle
with a question that will probably be engaging thoughtful people for centuries.
At Oxford, Harvard, the U of M—and in places like Otter Tail County, too.
Jon Spayde is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities