Seligman has touched almost every individual and company, but almost no one knows his name. His early work was on depression, mental illness and ‘learnt helplessness’. But 20 years ago, when President of the American Psychological Association, he began to develop the academic field of “positive psychology”, which studies what goes well in the lives of individuals, relationships and organisations, rather than merely focussing on what goes wrong. A stream of books followed including Learnt Optimism, Authentic Happiness and Flourish. He heads a formidable team at the University of Pennsylvania, who for 20 years has been pumping out research evidence that shows that habits of optimism, well-being and happiness can indeed be learnt and that, if taught at school, can stave off the onset of debilitating mental illnesses. Positive psychology works to build human capacity and character, to stop us falling over the edge. Once we hit the bottom, repair is much more expensive and unpredictable. Duckworth (see entry above) is one of his many protégées. Few psychologists post war have been as influential.

The Seldon List 2017


These 20 figures, ten women, ten men, encompass those who I believe are having or will have the most powerful effect on our schools and universities. Some are household names, many are not. They all should be. Education at every level is riven by major disputes, and now more so than ever. The list of 20 contains those with pungent views on these debates, which include: whether we should be educating young people to lead a good life or merely for jobs; whether a traditional academic curriculum is suitable for all and whether it is right that it fails a third or more; and whether the state or the market should be dominant in deciding the content and delivery of education.

Reducing the figures to just 20 was agonizing: a further ten at least were very close to inclusion. Next year’s table will drop 10 from here. The key factor in the selection is who is setting the agenda for education, whether leaders of individual institutions, politicians and administrators, or academics and writers.

As education affects all of us, far more than we may think, these 20 contain some of the most influential figures in the country today.

Sir Anthony Seldon

Sir Anthony is one of Britain’s leading contemporary historians, educationalist, commentator and political author. Anthony Seldon is currently the Vice Chancellor of Buckingham University. He was head of Brighton College and of Wellington College, two of Britain’s leading independent schools. He is author of over 40 books on contemporary history, including the inside books on the last four Prime Ministers, politics and education, is co-founder of Action for Happiness, honorary historian to Downing Street and a Director of The Royal Shakespeare Company.



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