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For 20 years, New York Mills, Minn., has hosted a fanfare for common men and women who prove that great thoughts are not the sole province of scholars and philosophers, but also of dentists and housewives, students and artists.

What began as the Great Midwestern Think-Off in 1993, and grew into the Great American Think-Off, has people from coast to coast submitting short essays for a chance to travel to the small town 175 miles northwest of the Twin Cities to debate a particular philosophical question.

Over the years, ordinary Americans have argued to audience members, who also serve as questioners and judges, that the heart is more trustworthy than the head, that we reap what we sow, that safety is more valuable than freedom, and that the sword is mightier than the pen.

Tonight's Think-Off re-examines the inaugural question, and the lone issue to end with a deadlocked audience: Is humankind inherently good or inherently evil? Contestants hailing from Bemidji; Virginia Beach, Va.; LaGrange, Ill., and Syracuse, N.Y., will converge on the town founded in 1884 by New York lumber companies.

(If you can't attend, the debate will be streamed live on The Think-Off is on the drop-down menu under "features.")

Will good or evil triumph this year?

That depends on the skills of the debaters, said Jamie Robertson, executive director of the Regional Cultural Center, noting that the winning argument should never be considered the "right" argument -- only the better-argued stance.

In other words, Robertson said, debaters vie to make an argument so persuasive that even audience members who disagree must acknowledge it as well reasoned. "Honestly," he said, "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?"

John Davis thought up the Think-Off while on a road trip in his '66 Ford Galaxie, unwinding from the stress of opening the cultural center in 1992. The center's mission was to provide innovative access to artists in a rural community, but also was envisioned as a national model. The logo of Rodin's "The Thinker" sitting on a tractor symbolized cultivating the arts, Davis said.

"I had on my mind how to make philosophy accessible to every average person," he said. "I mean, even the word 'colloquium' sounds elitist. I'm a big sports fan and thought, what if you make it more of a sports format, with four finalists like the NCAA Final Four?"

Initial skepticism was overcome, the house sold out, and the Think-Off's intended legacy has borne fruit, Robertson said, with New York Mills noted as the inspiration for artist-in-residence programs nationwide. Davis, now executive director of the Lanesboro Arts Center, used the same model to start a national Kids Philosophy Slam, which this year attracted more than 5,000 essays.

The Think-Off also has burnished the town's rep, with New York Mills having variously been named one of the top five culturally cool towns, one of the top 50 funky towns, and one of the 100 best small arts towns in America. It was even once called "The Athens of America."

"Gee," Robertson said, "I hadn't heard that one. I would love to embrace that view of things. Actually, though, I don't think we're any different from any other community. But maybe that's what they thought in Athens, as well."

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185