I had been aware of The Great American Think-Off ever since the early 1990s, when our family dentist began entering each year. Finally, in 2011, he won the title of American's Greatest Thinker by successfully arguing that poetry matters. I began requiring my writing students to enter the contest each year, and they argued, understandably, that I should enter too. So I did.
It's always a challenge to answer each year's question based on my own experience and observation. Academic research is not encouraged. The questions are always provocative: Is the nature of humankind inherently good or evil? Does God exist? Is the pen mightier than the sword? Does immigration strengthen or threaten the United States?
When I saw this year's question, I knew I wanted to enter. I submitted my 750-word essay arguing that yes, voting does matter. I was delighted to be named a finalist, but also in awe of my competition: a communications professor, a political consultant and a political researcher at the Minnesota state capitol. As it turned out, I lost in the first round against the researcher who agreed that voting matters, but she had a depth of current knowledge that made her a formidable opponent. She then went on to defeat the other winner of round one who'd argued that voting doesn't matter.
This drama took place in a Minnesota farm town of 1,000 residents called New York Mills. It was settled by Finnish immigrant farmers in the late 1800s, whose legacy lives on in the many co-operatives, the community spirit and the fierce political awareness.
Besides the Think-Off, the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center supports an artist-in-residence program, education and outreach programs, a music concert series and gallery exhibits. It is housed in the oldest building in town, built of brick with an ornate Victorian-era façade. Their logo is a silhouette of a man riding a tractor. The Think-Off logo is a figure of Rodin's "The Thinker" sitting on a tractor tire. Good humor and a larger vision permeate everything about the center and this event.
Even our accommodations were thought-provoking. The Whistle Stop B&B comprises a beautiful expansive white frame house, but also four elaborate train cars that have been restored and remodeled to accommodate beds, bathrooms and kitchens. They are a destination in themselves. The owner and proprietor of the Whistle Stop is one of the many financial supporters of the Think-Off.
If I needed something to remind me that rural America is filled with surprises, this experience did so in a spectacular way. New York Mills is a remote town and is not wealthy by city standards. But the modern, comfortable high school auditorium was filled with hundreds of people eager to see the debate and vote for the winner on a Saturday night. The meals cooked up by a local caterer and residents were healthy and delicious. The art on display in the
cultural center was creative, exciting and professional. The people were educated and well-informed conversationalists, many of
whom enter the Think-Off themselves.
If you want to give it a try yourself, check their Website after Jan. 1 to see what the philosophical debate will be about next year. Who knows? An Oregon man won in 2008. It could happen again, and it could be you.
Louise Mengelkoch is a retired journalism professor and deep thinker who lives in Lake Oswego.
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