Contest: In New York Mills, Minn., the home of the Great American Think-Off, it's an era of enlightenment. And you can be a part of it.


March 05, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

There is an unusual town out in the heartland. It has 972 people, maybe 15 streets. It is a farming community, with some industrial and white-collar jobs available. The preferred recreation is ice fishing.

New York Mills, Minn., is removed, only lightly touched by consumerist fashions and free of their logos and insignia. That is to say, it has no McDonald's, no Wendy's. Not even a GAP.

You might not like the idea of a place with this Teflon immunity to modernity. But you would expect something different from it. And you wouldn't be disappointed, either. It is the home of the Great American Think-Off: the only one of its kind. Anywhere.

This is a thinking contest. You can enter it, even if you live in Baltimore. But you have to act fast, by the end of the month. If you win, you will be invited to visit this splendid outpost in the outback on June 20 and, briefly, be free of the insidious persuasions of commerce.

If you don't win? Well, you can go anyway.

All this may sound stagey and promotional. But the Great American Think-Off, called the Great Midwestern Think-Off when began in 1993, was conceived without the influence of the local chamber of commerce: It is untainted by boosterism or Babbittry. At least it sounds that way.

It sprang from the fecund mind of John Davis, probably while he was riding around the hinterland, as he does off and on to find out what's on the American mind, hauling his 27-year-old Airstream trailer behind his 1978 Pontiac, talking to folks here and there -- waitresses in diners, mechanics under cars in hamlets with hardly a dot on the map to tell of their existence.

Davis is an intellectual paladin who settled in New York Mills after his graduation from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1987, where he studied painting.

Why leave the frigid glitz of Minneapolis for a spare prairie town utterly without the funky glow of neon? Because he wanted to live in the country, to find a place "to explore and express some of the ideas I had about art." Maybe even burn with a gem-like flame.

Davis is only 36, but he has already done a lot for his adopted hometown. The Think-Off, only his most recent initiative, has put the place on the map. Or, as Mayor Dean Simpson says, "People have found out where New York Mills is at."

"I always wanted to have a philosophy contest, and to draw the average person into it," Davis said from a pay phone somewhere on an Arizona roadside, about halfway through his latest quest to learn what's on America's mind. "When I was a student at art school I ran a gallery. We had contests between artists, aesthetic arguments, and they had to defend their art. I thought then that if people had the same chance to talk about philosophy, it would be an untapped potential."

So that is what it's all about: philosophy for Everyman. To repeat: a thinking contest.

Before presenting the idea to the folks in New York Mills, Davis spoke to philosophy professors, a "couple of attorneys," ordinary people here and there. The professors suggested a two-part contest: first an essay, then a debate.

The essays should be based on personal experience, be free of academic language and references. They should run no longer than 750 words. The topics are framed as pro and con questions, questions ordinary people can relate to or tend to have opinions about. Things like these: Is the Death Penalty Ethical in a Civilized Society? Does God Exist? The Nature of Humankind: Inherently Good or Inherently Evil?

All these recommendations were accepted. The Think-Off ensued, for six years so far, with the number of entries ranging from 750 in one year to 400 in another. The essays come in from all over the country.

Winners are chosen by a national panel of professional and amateur philosophers. The authors of the four best essays participate in the debate -- two against and two for, selected mainly for the strength of their arguments.

Debates in the past have pitted a 66-year-old retired stenographer and 16-year-old Eagle Scout against a UPS worker and a graduate student on the question of which is more valued by Americans, money or morals. This was in 1995. The Scout and stenographer argued for morality. They lost.

Last year's debate on whether capital punishment is unethical in a civilized society drew an audience of 250 paying customers, a number that represents a quarter of New York Mills' population. Steve Shulz, manager of a radio station in nearby Perham, had to argue on his own that it was, indeed, unethical: The author of the other best essay defending this point was in prison.

Even so, the motion carried.

This year's question is: Is Honesty ALWAYS the best policy?

If you win you will be declared America's Greatest Thinker. You will be world famous, at least in New York Mills, Minn. You will receive a gold medal with a figure of a naked man sitting on a tractor thinking. You will also get $500, which you can squander on the metropolitan delights of New York Mills, or take home with you.

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