The Great American Think Off is a public debate held in the auditorium of the elementary school in rural New York Mills, Minnesota (population 1,199). Every year, hundreds of people from around the country submit essays in response to a philosophical proposition, competing to come to this central Minnesota town to debate their position in front of a live audience. Nik Nerburn is making a documentary about it.
Previous questions include “Does Life Have Meaning?”, “Does Technology Free Us or Trap Us?", and "Has the 2016 election changed our perception of the truth?". The New York Mills Cultural Center (aka the “Kulcher Center”), which hosts the debate, encourages writers "to ground their essays in personal experience rather than philosophical abstraction." The 2018 question is “Which plays a larger role in shaping one’s life: success or failure?”
A committee of locals chooses the 4 best essays, whose authors come to New York Mills and argue their position live, on stage, in front of the town. The winner is determined by audience vote.
An accessible open call like this attracts strong thinkers from all walks of life. Previous thinkers include a 16-year old Eagle Scout, a doctoral candidate specializing in biomedical ethics, a retired assembly-line worker, a man incarcerated for murder whose essay was read aloud on stage in his absence, a staff writer of the Baltimore Sun, a World War II veteran, and my childhood dentist (he won twice). The “Great American Thinker” is never crowned as such for having the ‘right’ argument, but only for having the best-argued stance. “Honestly,” as the founder of the Kulcher Center said in 2012, “I think this idea of, 'I'm not changing my opinion, but really, the best argument tonight was made by this person,' is a pretty neat thing to do, isn't it?”