Legacy of Material Culture: The Story of Our Stuff
Legacy - HNRS 1120

Instructor(s): Megan Jacobs

Course Description

How much stuff do you need to be happy? The material goods we purchase fill our homes, impact our bank accounts and have vast environmental ramifications on the planet. The average American has more than 300,000 possession and current homes in the U.S. are three times as large as in the 1950’s (while the personal storage industry is a 22 billion dollar a year industry).    

We aren’t the first to wonder what part “things” play in the good life.  As early as 340 BC Aristotle argues that one must have the “furniture of the good life” in order to truly flourish. He believed that material goods play a role in happiness. We cannot live up to our potential as humans if we have nothing, but how much and what kinds of things do we need to be happy?  

We will explore the role of possessions in detail, asking questions such as: Why do we buy things and what role does media take in shaping our material desires? What does the consumption and inevitable disposal of these goods do to the planet? How do material goods express our identities, informing others of our gender, socioeconomic and racial backgrounds? How do our possessions serve as markers of personal or collective memory?   

We will read a range of historic and contemporary thinkers--Aristotle, Karl Marx, John Ruskin, Juliet Schor, Marie Kondo, Alain de Botton, and Arthur Brooks--who explore the effect of stuff in our lives as we try to answer the fundamental question: what role does material culture play in the good life?  


Required readings: de Botton, Alain. Status Anxiety. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004. Print.  

All other excerpted readings will be made available on the course website. 


Active Participation & Attendance 

Class Observations 

Oral Presentations  

  • Class Discussion Leadership 
  • Material Culture + Artist Presentation 


  • Aristotle’s Good Life Project Inspiration Map 
  • Argumentative Project: Meritocracy   
  • Culminating Good Life Project 

About the Instructor(s): Megan Jacobs

Megan Jacobsis an Associate Professor in the Honors College and holds a Master of Fine Arts degree. Jacobs' teaching interests include photography, philosophy, aesthetics, material culture, data visualization, and exhibit design. Megan is a practicing artist whose work has been exhibited internationally and nationally at Aperture Gallery, Saatchi Gallery, the Museum of New Art (MONA), and the Pingyao International Photography Festival, Pingyao, China. Her work has been featured in publications such as Musee Magazine, Lenscratch, Feature Shoot, and Frankie Magazine.