Ken Yohn is the sort of person who becomes so absorbed with a subject that… Well, for example:
When considering how people like to personalize their vehicles, and after watching various Bling My Ride television shows, Yohn found himself at the British Museum studying images of ancient Roman chariots, to see if this tendency to customize was new or could be traced back into human history.
Yohn studied and studied and thought he finally had found evidence, only to learn that what he was seeing wasn’t personalization but the difference between chariots built for regular soldiers and those designed for officers.
I share the above example simply to show just how inquisitive is Ken Yohn, chairman of the history and politics department at McPherson College. And for the past several weeks, he’s been the featured instructor in the college’s inaugural (and free) “Wheels of Change: How the Automobile Shaped Our Lives” webinar series.
Yohn’s personality is as engaging as his studies are enlightening in depth and detail. If you missed the 6-week series, you missed a delightfully educational and entertaining experience. Fortunately for you, however, the school will replay the series soon on its YouTube channel, so you can see and hear for yourself as Yohn presents on various topics and then is joined by guests to discuss what Yohn considers the most significant and permeating technology to enter human history.
As you likely know — and if not, you really need to know — McPherson is the only college in the country that offers a 4-year degree in automotive restoration, though the curriculum goes well beyond the school’s garage and workshops to include mandatory courses in business and the liberal arts.
You don’t just stumble across this college’s compact campus in the middle of nowhere (actually, pretty close to smack dab in the middle of Kansas), you have to work to find it. But students from across the country eagerly do so each semester, and their efforts are rewarded with a post-graduate employment history that would be the envy of even the Ivy League, if such schools even knew of McPherson’s existence.
Yohn found himself at McPherson for the 1999-2000 school year. He was born in Illinois, attended college’s in Indiana and Iowa, and is an avid bicyclist and bicycle restoration expert, and something of world traveler.
“Wheels of Change” covered six topics, each for an hour, although the question-and-answer sessions tended to run over allotted 60 minutes. Just to whet your interest for watching the YouTube replays, I’ll list the topics, with the special guest or guests, and will share a highlight or two from my notes:
Topic: “Four Epic Road Trips that Upended the World
Guest: McPherson grad Kyle Smith, now associate editor at Hagerty
Summary: A look at the impact of early motorcar journeys and how they shaped public opinion about this new invention
Highlight: Carl Benz may have invented a machine, but it didn’t become a car until his wife and children basically stole it one night while he slept (she did leave him a note) and drove it 66 miles to visit her family, and several days later drove it back again.
Topic: “Paving the Way for the Automobile”
Guest: Andrew Beckman, archivist, National Studebaker Museum
Summary: How bicyclists and their push for better roads for themselves and for steam-powered omni-buses and other technologies helped make the spread of motorcars possible
Highlight: One reason motorcars became popular was the pollution and diseases caused by so much horse manure and urine and so many horse carcasses on the streets of American cities.
Topic: “That Be Giants in Them Thar Hills”
Guest: Bob Casey, retired curator of transportation at The Henry Ford museum
Summary: Henry Ford, Billy Durant and the creation of the mega corporations
Highlight: Ford and Durant generally are seen as polar opposites, but Casey pointed out five aspects in which they were very much alike.
Topic: “The Road to Perdition”
Guest: Abbey Paulsen, high school junior, and Tabetha Hammer, McPherson grad and head of the Greenwich Concours for Hagerty
Summary: How the automobile liberated women and captivated teenagers
Highlight: Paulsen teaching Yohn how to start and drive her Model T.
Topic: “The Great War”
Guest: Casey Maxon, McPherson grad and historian for the Historic Vehicle Association
Summary: The automobiles role in the mechanization of warfare and the war’s impact on personal mobility
Highlight 1: We link caterpillar treads with tanks but they were created by a California vineyard owner to deal with sandy soil.
Highlight 2: Maxon notes that World War I started with an automobile, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated while in their car.
Topic: “Art for the People”
Guest: Donald Osborne, chief executive of the Audrain Automobile Museum
Summary: How Harley Earl and automotive styling democratized beauty
Highlight: Osborne explaining that the head of GM design taught the public that style wasn’t just for Hollywood and sports figures.
One other highlight, shared each week, was Yohn’s introductory summary of the study of history, that history is the result of choices, that history does not repeat — every moment is unique — that there are multiple causes for each historical moment, and that what’s important is not just historical facts but their meaning.
There was much more in the 6 hours of presentation. You can see for yourself when the series replays on the McPherson YouTube channel.